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Friday, April 17, 2015

2015 Tour of Hermann

Scheduled about 90 days before Dirty Kanza, Tour of Hermann is perfectly timed to be both a hard weekend of training and a good gauge of where your bike fitness is.  Last year I arrived in some of the best shape of life and with solid training behind me; this year I'm carrying 10 extra pounds pounds and a mental bruise or two from my struggles at Death by Gravel.  A good showing in Hermann would be a huge confidence builder moving forward.

Saturday morning my desire to go completely deserted me, and I spent my drive contemplating the decisions in life that have led me to a place where I pay money to ride really hard roads for a hundred miles a day. I was strangely nervous about the weekend, and there was no good reason to be as freaked out as I felt.  I was going to be by myself, but I rode much of last year's race alone too, and while I enjoy talking to the people I meet along the way I'm comfortable on my own. I've ridden most of the course before; if it didn't go well I've never found walking hills to be the end of the world, and if it went really badly, there was SAG support available.

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Checked in, number on, and zip ties trimmed by the Momentum teammate I'd just met.
Thankfully the nerves dissipated as soon as I pulled into Hermann City Park, which was packed with cars and familiar faces. I absolutely love the St. Louis area cycling scene, and the vibe at gravel events in particular is so friendly and low-key that you can't help but feel happy. I did as much socializing as preparation, but somehow I managed to be ready in time to get in the pre-race team photo.

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Mickey, Shaun, Brian, Jeff, Joe, me
Mickey was planning a solo run (you can take the guy out of triathlon, but you can't take triathlon out of the guy...), Brian was riding with a couple of friends, and Shaun, Jeff, and Joe were planning to stick together for the day.  Being nowhere near as fast as the guys, I intended to ride my own race, making friends along the way as always.

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I not only pose for my own pre-race selfies but also those of strangers.
Race director Jeff Yielding said some words and then led us out of town towards the Katy Trail. I chatted briefly with Josh before he cruised ahead to find his crew, and then I spent the next few miles catching up with Tracy, a Springfield-area cyclist who'd been an internet-only friend until we officially met in January.  Once we hit the road and started the first gentle climbs, he moved ahead and I continued at a comfortable pace, talking briefly with Charlie and Stoney as we rode near each other.

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Look ma, no camelbak! Since Dirty Kanza will have more closely spaced water stops, I'm experimenting with just using water bottles and jersey pockets instead of the pack. Photo credit: Tracy Wilkins
The first climb is paved and not so terrible, and I'd just crested it and started to fly downhill when I shifted into the big ring and dropped my chain. I fixed that as quickly as possible and then set off, all too quickly coming to the monster gravel hill that I remembered from last year. It looks impossibly big, but since I'd ridden it last year I was committed to staying on my bike this time too.

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Obviously not me, but it gives you an idea of the hill.
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There's me! Photo credit: Dan Singer

I'd loaded the route onto my Garmin. Though the course was impeccably marked and I would have been fine without GPS it did add some entertainment/irritation, as the "time remaining" screen spent the entire weekend estimating my finish time based on 10 min miles. Even riding uphill I didn't deserve the 5.5 hour predicted time for the first 30 miles.

When I repeat a course, I always find the dichotomy between my memories and the reality interesting. I clearly remembered the hill pictured above but not the far bigger one about 17 miles in...until I got there, when I vividly remembered walking up it.  Not this year, though.  It was slow, but I stayed on the bike the whole time.

There was one big sweet, sweet downhill, followed by a paved climb where some guys who'd leapfrogged me earlier passed me once more, and then another, more gradual downhill that led back to the Katy Trail towards Hermann. I pushed to catch back up with the guys who'd passed me so I could draft along behind them, only to have my plans thwarted when they pulled up as soon as I reached them to regroup with their friends still behind them.

I felt great as I pulled through race HQ to have my first loop recorded and felt really good about my time, which as it turned out was very similar to my 2014 time. This year I had virtually no stopping (just to put my chain back on) and rode all the hills, as compared to 10 minutes stopped  and walking at least one big hill last year.

Loop 1
2014: 2:03:72 moving, 2:13 elapsed, 39.1 max, 13.3 avg.
2015: 2:11:14 moving, 2:12 elapsed, 40.9 max, 13.6 avg.
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Elevation profile for loop 1.
Loop 2: 

I spent about 12 minutes total refilling bottles, stocking up on fuel, and stopping by the bathroom on my way back out of the park, not a quick transition but almost twice as fast as last year's 20 minutes. This loop started with a big paved climb I'd been dreading since the previous year. It just went on and on, but eventually I made it to the top and enjoyed some sweet downhill pavement until the course turned back onto gravel.

Unlike the smooth, packed gravel of the previous loop, this one was marked by thick, fresh gravel that required much more work to ride. I was plodding along, feeling maybe a little down on myself because it felt so hard, when I recognized a spot along the road where I'd stopped to take a break and stretch my back and aching hip. I know I was in way better shape last April, so reaching this same turn and feeling, overall, pretty good gave me a shot of confidence.

I definitely reaped the benefit of my increased comfort on downhills on this loop, which made the uphills not quite as terrible. Eventually I had to start walking some hills; that was slightly depressing but only slightly because I usually had a lot more pep once I got back onto the bike. I'd been playing leapfrog all day with a group of guys. They'd pass me on climbs, and then I'd get back ahead when the leaders stopped to regroup. The last I saw of them on the course was at the top of a sketchy gravel hill.

I'd reached that point that Jill Homer (I think) calls the zen of fatigue: you're so tired that you don't really care what happens to you. I let myself speed down the loose gravel, and though Jeff Sona's advice "Your bike wants to stay upright" echoed through my mind reassuringly I didn't even whimper it aloud as I descended.  That, my friends, is progress.

One downhill where I did not let it fly, though, was the one where last year a washout sent several people to the emergency room. I cautiously eased my way down, meeting Jonathan and Brandon (in whose selfie above I make a cameo appearance) as they finished fixing a flat at the bottom of the hill. We rode together and talked for a little bit, but they were stronger riders and pulled ahead before long.

Team Red Wheel's Stacy caught me several miles from the end of the loop. "No singlespeed this year, huh?" he asked, remembering my woes with last year's broken shifter. He was much stronger than me on hills and passed me by pretty easily, but my touring tires rolled faster than his mountain bike ones, so I eventually caught up with him again and we talked mutual friends and Cedar Cross until we hit the pavement back to the start/finish.

"How was it?" Jeff Yielding asked as I passed through the timing pavilion.
"Hard!"
"You going back out again?"
"...I guess..."

Comparing my 2014 and 2015 times, I was 13 minutes faster this year, though my guess is all of that improvement is due to the fact that I had fully functioning shifters for the entire loop. I had 12 non-moving minutes this year compared to 18 last year. Better, but still a LOT of room for improvement.


Loop 2
2014: 3:13:38 moving, 3:30:56 elapsed, 36.2 max, 10.5 avg -- 6:03
2015: 3:00:07 moving, 3:12:14 elapsed, 38 max, 11 avg -- 5:35 

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Loop 2 elevation profile
Loop 3

A multiple-loop race is a diabolical. It's so easy to quit when you get back to the start/finish, and loop 2 must be designed to make people question why they would want to ride any more hills when there's a lovely park...and fun people...and a cooler full of cold drinks right in their car.  While all of these things were tempting, however, their allure didn't outweigh the crap I knew I'd hear from my teammates if I bailed on the third loop for no good reason.

It took me 18 minutes to get back on the bike this time, but I'd promised myself that if I went out on loop 3, I could walk every single hill I wanted to without feeling bad. With that assurance and the knowledge that I only had another 33 miles to go (33 miles, that's just like a medium Trailnet ride), I grudgingly set off again, telling Stacy I'd see him when he passed me on the hills.  My timing was good, getting to see John, Greg, and Chris as they finished their second loops and Peat as he finished his third. Yes, 33 miles ahead of me. There are some seriously impressive people on bikes. I'm just glad to get to know them (and see them at the start line :D).

Loop 3 was a lollipop that started with about 5 miles of pavement, so I immediately subtracted the out and back mileage from my total miles. 10 miles of pavement barely counts, so now I only had 23 miles to ride...I'd just started and was practically halfway there. Fuzzy math is an important part of my mental game.

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At the top of the first hill I walked on loop 3 (and not the last)
Stacy did indeed catch me walking up hills partway through, but he took pity on me and stuck with me. I'd been fine riding on my own, but it was SO nice to have good company and it made the time pass much more quickly.  I started taking the uphills personally about halfway through -- Seriously?? Another one?? -- but at the same time was thoroughly enjoying the day. The Hermann area is absolutely beautiful, the weather was glorious, and the downhills were super fun (except one that was really steep with a turn at the bottom...that was still a little scary).

While I'd been ambivalent about riding that third loop, I came into the start/finish feeling much better than after loop 2 and very glad I'd gotten back on the bike.

Loop 3:
2015: 2:52:38 moving, 3:08:10 elapsed, 41.2 max, 11.4 avg.


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Loop 3
I got out of my bike clothes as quickly as possible and headed the few blocks to the Tin Mill Brewery to meet the guys, who'd finished way ahead of me and gone to eat. My pizza took forever to cook, but that's OK because I just at their leftovers.

Day 2/Loop 4:

After a hot shower and a good night's sleep and even with a freshly washed kit thanks to my wonderful teammate Jeff, the last thing I wanted to do was get back onto my bike.  Once again, a park full of awesome people lifted my spirits, as did handouts of slightly expired waffles and delicious maple syrup packets, the perfect compromise between a mid-ride pancake breakfast and the convenience of a gel pack. So good! I came home and ordered a box.

I reluctantly put my kit on and rolled my bike to the starting line next to my Team Virtus teammates. Bob, Robby, and Luke had come for day 2, and their company was reason enough to get back on the bike for another 52 miles. It didn't escape me that when I do Tour Divide it'll be 100+ mile days back to back for a few weeks and that maybe I need to toughen up a little, but that's still 6 years away.

The very first small hill out of time reminded me that, while my ass was complaining the most about the previous day's ride, my legs weren't fully on board with this day 2 plan. The 17-mile stretch of Katy Trail that followed, though, was actually surprisingly pleasant, filled with easy spinning and good conversation as Luke, Robby, Bob, and I rode near the Wild Trak crew and then with John and Greg as they rode their way back towards Kansas City.

Robby and I got ahead when Luke and Bob stopped to do a little mid-race mushroom hunting, but I didn't mind waiting to regroup at all.  A paved climb awaited us as soon as we turned off the Katy, and Luke and Robby's stronger climbing put them well ahead of us. We regrouped again at the top of the day's first gravel descent.


We all rolled together for a while, but Luke and Robby were so much faster that eventually we spread out again.  I rode on my own for a while before realizing how dumb it was for Bob and I to both be riding solo when it would be so much more fun to ride together. Best decision of the day.  I had so much fun, hanging out with Bob, and not just because he never fails to tell me how much better I am at descending than when he first rode with me.

It's so important to walk your bike regularly.
This was another seriously beautiful loop, and if I couldn't ride up all the hills, well...Bob was kind enough to walk them with me, spotting deer bones left and right while I was all "Look how green it is here!"
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While rain and 10-15 mph winds had been in the forecast, we'd enjoyed a really nice day.  Overcast and slightly cooler than Saturday, the wind had been absent and the weather had been perfect for riding.  We met back up with Luke and Robby on the Katy Trail, where they were midway through an extra 10 miles to round out a metric century for the Cup o' Dirt Challenge.  Distant thunder added a bit of urgency to our pace, but the rain caught up a few miles from Hermann.

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Briefly taking shelter in the tunnel and being glad that my status as a girl exempts me from "Caught peeing" photos.
The rain became a downpour as we rode onto Hwy 19 towards Hermann, tiny drops pelting us like needles in a ridiculous headwind that made the lovely flat pavement feel like a long uphill climb. It was the perfect weather to try out the awesome new Showers Pass jacket that was packed away in my car, so instead I pedaled and laughed about how ridiculous the weather was. Riding back into City Park as raindrops stung my face and tents flew across the park will certainly be up there in race memories.

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Finishing! Photo credit: Andrea Boianoff
While I had another 15 or so minutes before the cut-off to ride the final 52 miles, I opted to be finished after loop 4.  I actually felt great and confident that I had another 50 miles in my legs, but I had no desire to spend the next 5 hours alone and then ride into an empty park, only to drive myself home.  Even though I was a quitter, I still ended up with a bottle of wine for riding farther than I did last year and finishing in the crazy rain. 

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Bob got wine because...well, because he's Bob.
Even riding at a chill pace and making liberal stops, I rode this loop nearly 20 minutes faster than last year. Of course, last year my semi-fixed shifter re-broke halfway through, leaving me riding a virtual singlespeed, so that likely accounts for the majority of the difference. That 43.2 max speed, though, is my new speed PR. 

Loop 4
2014: 4:42:50 moving, 5:40:27 elapsed, 39.6 max, 11.2 avg
2015: 4:24:34 moving, 5:25:25 elapsed, 43.2 max, 11.8 avg. 


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Loop 4

The guys and I put on dry clothes (all except Bob, who hadn't brought other clothes) and headed for some delicious Mexican food.  Once we were finished and they were all ready to head home, I drove back to City Park to see the Momentum guys (all of whom rode the full 200 miles. They are SO ready for Dirty Kanza) finish...and then go to dinner with them.

This two teams thing could get hard on my waistline.
So...awesome, fantastic weekend. Tour of Hermann is a great event and a great deal -- $40 for two days of racing/riding on some of the best gravel roads around. And while I didn't ride the full 200 miles, riding 148 miles and feeling confident that I had another 50 in me was vastly more encouraging than struggling through Death by Gravel. I still have plenty of work to do, but I'm feeling pretty good about my chances in Kansas this May.

7 comments:

  1. Your recaps are always awesome, and I'm always amazed by your determination, but with this one it really struck me - you just keep on improving and improving. Chipping away, a little at a time, each year better than the previous.

    I need to tap into that - lately I have zero motivation to improve at all. It's kind of a stale feeling....like all of my best times are behind me.

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  2. Great recap. Seriously impressed because I had zero confidence to attempt loop 5. So I didnt! Way to c-c-c-crush it!

    -Casey F. Ryback

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    1. Ha! You rode a *little* faster than I did. Good times out there for sure.

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  3. You are gonna rock Kanza again. So pleased for you. Where is your jar of gravel to show off?

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    1. I hope you're right! My gravel jar was still in the car when I wrote this...never got around to taking a picture of it. I mean, the wine is what counts, right? ;-)

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  4. You are ready for greater adventures. You are always an inspiration. Great recap, great photos and, of course, great Tour!

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  5. Awesome report Kate! You did great and what a great confidence booster for DK.

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