Reality Check

Route 66 Bicycles' Dan Fuhrmann has put on some pretty cool rides lately: a Black Friday ride I had to skip, January's Joe Dirt ride, and yesterday's Death by Gravel. This latest event, a 92-mile odyssey through the gravel roads of the Mark Twain National Forest near Steelville, MO, was rich in scenery and elevation change and tough enough that midway through, given the choice between "Give me gravel or give me death," I'd have had to think hard about my answer.  Though I struggled early and often, my Momentum Racing teammates didn't give me the option of dying (or quitting); instead waiting for me at turns and hilltops, being positive and encouraging, and sometimes quite literally pulling me along.

With a long ride this year of 55 miles, I knew I was unprepared for the leg shredding DbG promised, but my Dirty Kanza training has been anemic at best and has to ramp up if I want any hope of finishing again this year. Even if it would be a tough day in the saddle, at least we'd be able to enjoy a beautiful spring day on our bikes, right?

Ummm...maybe. The forecast definitely had the potential to be nice or sub-awesome.
It was hard to drag myself out of bed at 4:15 a.m. in order to be in MO'Fallon by 6:15 to meet up with our carpool group, but once I got into the car I was excited to once again be up at a ridiculously early time to go ride bikes. Momentum had a 6-person crew going -- Jeff, Joe, Melanie, Mickey, Shaun, and me -- so we spread out in two cars for the trip to Steelville, arriving in plenty of time to get ready, say hi's (always my main priority, but I was particularly happy to run into Ron and Shawn, who are fairly local and my main hope if I found myself in need of a car ride back), and still roll out with the main group.  The forecast (cool and breezy in the morning, high in the high 50's, chance of rain) made dress a little tricky, and our choices ranged from full coverage to shorts and a light jacket.

The wind hit us as we rode out of the parking lot, and while it was considerable its influence was muted by the terrain; the bigger impact was of the elevation. It was clear from the first hill that I was the weakest climber of our group, and while that's not rare in my world my ego did suffer a little extra sting because for once I wasn't the only girl in the pack.  I'd say the majority of female cyclists in the St. Louis area are faster than me, but since I don't typically ride with them I don't suffer from the direct comparison. At DbG, on the other hand, I had a back-row seat to see Melanie crush hills I struggled up (and, later, walked) and finish, unassisted, a ride I needed significant help on, all while being cheerful and pleasant and fun to be around.

While I'd fallen behind the group early on, I wasn't alone. This little sweetie followed along for about two miles, only dropping me after beating me to the top of yet another hill and perhaps going off in search of better competition.
The guys were waiting at the top of the first set of hills, a pattern which would repeat itself over the day, and at that point I was able to keep up just fine as long as the road was flat or downhill. Clearly I need to look for a route more tailored to my strengths, so if you know of an Escher-esque gravel race, let me know.

I'd like to go downhill both ways, please.

Shaun, Mel, and Joe in front; me, Mickey, and Chris in back. Jeff taking the picture.

While my riding was sub-par, the scenery was anything but, and I rode along happily savoring the beautiful surroundings and comfortable weather.

Like riding through a painting...
I enjoyed the hills slightly less...

Recovering after a climb

There were quite a few low-water crossings, but the water was low enough to prevent any drama.

I think this was the most water we rode through.
Death by Gravel wasn't a race or paid event, just a free hey-let's-all-get-together-and-ride-this-awesome-route, so there weren't any official aid stations. Instead, the course ran past a couple of options for refueling.  The first was a gas station at about mile 38.

Jeff, Melanie, Joe, Shaun, me, Mickey
The plan had been for us all to stick together for the whole ride, but I wasn't positive it would play out that way. Good intentions don't always work out in the face of wildly differing paces, so I'd made sure to actually be prepared and load the course onto my Garmin.  In the end, this was totally unnecessary, because the guys and Melanie repeatedly stopped to regroup.  It's a good thing, too, because it took me until that gas station stop to figure out how to get the screen that would show me directions. We all had varied Garmin issues, so Mickey's homemade cue sheets were invaluable. (Mine were especially helpful in my back pocket, where they stayed all day.)

I might be getting a little predictable...
The gas station was right on Hwy 8, which led right back to Steelville, and I jokingly/not jokingly wondered aloud about riding back on the highway.  "You aren't taking 8 back," Mickey scoffed, and that was that. I wanted to ride the whole thing anyway, but with as much as I was struggling in the first half I took Mickey up on his tow offer and rode much of the remaining 50 miles with his help.

Teamwork makes the dream work
If you've read my mentions of towing before, you can see it in action above. There's a length of stretchy surgical tubing fed through the red pipe attached to his bike. The looped end of it is attached to my bike. It's pretty easy to grab hold of and very easy to get out of, so I'm not stuck being helplessly dragged behind in places where I'm uncomfortable (like down big hills).

This was most humbling, to be sure. Towing is a great strategy in adventure races, when teams have to stick together and share their strengths. It was moderately humiliating to need that much help on a training ride, but the fact is that the tow was the difference between me riding the whole thing and me curled up on the side of the road crying by mile 45.  92 tough miles with help still puts me ahead of half of that and then quitting.

I've been lucky for all of my cycling/racing "career" to have friends and teammates who are encouraging and helpful as I've learned and progressed, and this ride really showed me that Momentum is a continuation of that good luck. Both the towing and the regrouping meant a lot to me, and no one made me feel any less because of either thing.  Our group kept what could have been a pretty rotten day for me really fun.

We only had one minor navigational misstep all day long, missing a turn and going up an unnecessary hill. All of our Garmins insisted we were off course (which they're also likely to do when you're on course), so we rode back down and found our actual turn, which had initially looked like the driveway to a church.  Somehow riding up the wrong hill is far less demoralizing than riding downhill in the wrong direction; in our case, all we had to do was turn around and let gravity do the rest.

The second half of the route featured about 5 miles of climbing and suddenly more company.  We'd ridden with Chris most of the day, which was fun. I've been at quite a few of the same events as him, but I don't know that we'd ever talked before. Getting to talk Dirty Kanza was a nice diversion for a while.  We'd also traded places with Lo and Alice just before and after the convenience store.  In this hilly section we ran into two more groups as they dealt with tire issues.

The Alpine Shop crew of Emily, David, Carrie, and Jeff were helping out Anne (I think it was her bike) with a flat. Tara and Jamie were there riding with Anne, and Erl, who I hadn't realized was in town, came over too. Mid-ride mini-reunions are fun!  Thanks to some continuing tire issues, we bounced back and forth with this group a few times.

Mega-regroup! L-R: Joe, Shaun, Jeff, me, Mel, Tara, Jamie, Anne, Adam (?), Chris, Emily, and somebody in yellow
All the climbing was followed by some glorious descending to our next aid station, this one located at the Bass River Resort campground store.  Bass was the start/finish for "Gemini"'s first AR, so in addition to being located on a fairly flat road and featuring new food and a place to sit down for a while, it holds some pretty good memories for me.  Also, after Bass we only had 29 miles to go. 29 miles, that's like a Trailnet medium route. Anybody can ride 29 miles.

I drank a can of coke, ate a container of Pringles, and talked until my teammates ushered me out.  "Let's go...the sooner we get on our bikes, the less we get rained on!" The glorious sun that had been shining on our arrival had been replaced by ominous clouds, most likely attracted by the sunscreen Joe bought at Bass.

The Alpine Shop crew, probably sick of flats and tire boots, had decided to ride the highway back from Bass.  I was tempted. I could ride back with those friends. My teammates would be back much more quickly if they weren't waiting on me...really, I'd be doing them a favor. Mickey was thumbs down on that plan, mentioning something about me not having a ride back to St. Louis if I rode the highway back.

Yes, he was (probably) bluffing, and yes, I probably could have gotten a ride from someone else if he was serious, but I also know that he wants what's best for me. Kind of like a father figure, except that if he ever tried that "this hurts me more than it hurts you" line I'd know he was lying. I'm pretty sure he enjoys seeing me suffer.

We ride.
 Incidentally, I look way happier than I felt about riding another 29 miles in the rain.
Team Noah's Adam also opted to take the long way home, and as we all rode away from Bass he commented, "I'm feeling pretty positive about the weather staying dry." The rain started maybe 5 minutes later but never progressed beyond a light sprinkle. Definitely a best-case scenario if we had to have rain, but the possibility of more rain lent an urgency to our pace and we cruised down the roads. Except, of course, when we were (and here I really mean I was) crawling up the hills, which I increasingly saw as personal affronts.

This rock bluff lined the road for a while.
We rode through some absolutely beautiful areas. The Ozark Trail passes not too far from Bass, so the scenery made me happy just knowing the trail was near and hungry for singletrack.

Heading back and thinking about dinner.
The rolling nature of the last 30 miles made staying on the tow challenging at times. Without some tension, the loop slips off my bike, so on flatter or slightly downhill stretches it requires a bit of a balancing act to stay in the right spot. I lost it more than once, but over the course of the day I did get slightly more comfortable being on tow downhill, and it helped me a little bit on my hill attacks because I had a close up view of what Mickey was doing (obviously it offered me a lot of physical assistance, but it was also like a mini hill clinic).

The last miles ticked away, punctuated by the roughest sections of road I remember from the entire day. The gravel was well-packed, but the underlying rock patches made for a bumpy ride; I'd been pleasantly surprised to how not terrible my lower region was feeling despite nearly doubling my previous long ride for the year, but this last third had me out of the saddle as much as possible.

I'm pretty sure we were the last ones back into the parking lot, after 9 hours total time and (for me, less for the guys) 7.5 hours moving time. 92 miles and somewhere between 7-9,000 feet of climbing, depending on whose Garmin you believe; mine said 7,303.  Death by gravel, indeed: fantastic route, great weather, and stern reality check as to where my bike fitness is right now.  It was a frustrating, demoralizing, difficult, and yet very fun day, and once my chafing heals, I'd love to go re-ride the route.  And I'd really love to manage it under my own power.

Things that went well: hydration, no mechanicals, and increasing confidence on downhills.
Things that went not so well: eating, know, that whole "insufficient training" thing
Things to consider: I'd have been fine without the camelbak; on rides where there are enough stops built in, I think it may be time to lose the security blanket.

Big thanks to Route 66 Bicycles for putting this sufferfest together, to Jeff and Mickey for all of the pictures, and to my teammates for being awesome.


  1. I like your follower, but not so often the dogs are a good company when we run or bike.
    The photos of your group are very beautiful.

  2. Oh, I feel about the same way with my running right now. Nothing for it but to keep working!

  3. You should write a book about your adventures and adventure racing. I am completely serious. Enjoy your day!

  4. Oh how I've missed your novel-length blog reports - I must get back on blogger!! :) I saw on FB that you did an epic ride and so I had to pop over to find out what you did. Never a dull moment in SK's life. Well done,'re always top of my list of kickass friends. Keep it up!


  5. Nice training ride but what fun will DK be if you go in fully trained? :-)


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