📷 Photos by Jon Duke, Mark Stevenson and Stefano Tomasello.
A Trans Iowa v14 Story
Before I dive into details, let’s get a few things out of the way. I am by no means an authority on adventure/gravel racing. Although I do a lot of on and off-road riding, Trans Iowa was technically my third gravel race. Lastly, I am not a writer by hobby or trade. With that said, settle in cause you’re about to read about 340 miles worth of race write-up. (SPOILER ALERT: I only rode 245 miles of it so it won’t be THAT long. You’re welcome.)
“1: The Golden Rule. The sponsors, organizers, and anyone having anything to do with this race are NOT responsible for your safety. Think of this race as a 300+ mile hard training ride with prizes. We can’t say this enough…..YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU!”
Every rider is required to write, “The Golden Rule” in its entirety on the postcard they submit for the Trans Iowa entry lottery. It’s the entire spirit of this event. It’s the core of adventure/gravel racing. It’s words to live life by.
So let’s start way back in June of 2017, shortly after Dirty Kanza 200. My result there was nothing to really brag about but in terms of fitness, I felt fantastic. That was important as I came away from that race with a new perspective on how to not only be faster on the bike but negotiate checkpoints without losing contact with the group you came in with. What I wasn’t hoping to come away from the race with was chronic fatigue and noticeably poorer vision, which went from slightly blurry to completely clouded in the following month. One morning I woke up practically blind, so I thought it might be a good idea for my eternally patient wife Joanne, to drive me to the ER and check things out . Fast forward about a month, a CT scan, 2 MRI’s and 25 blood tests later and not one doctor or specialist can explain to me why I can’t feel my feet at all and have the cataracts of a 70 year old in both of my eyes. For the record, doctors ruled out a vitamin deficiency, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease and all other logical diagnosis’ for my symptoms/conditions. Another month and two eye surgeries later, I have the crystal clear mono-vision of a 60 year old and have only regained some feeling in my toes, but at least that’s progress. My optimism is astounding, I know. Why this is evenly remotely important to Trans Iowa will make more sense a little later, I promise.
When I heard Guitar Ted read my name on his live-streamed lottery I got the feeling that most rookies probably got: YES!….uhh SHIT!!! While I had been crossing my fingers for a spot, I also knew that at my current weight and (lack of) fitness I had no place even attempting the distance. While I had been riding occasionally, my mysterious health conditions hadn’t given me the drive I once had to be fit. Trans Iowa changed all of that.
With the new found motivation that racing Trans Iowa provided, I spent the following 4 months building my fitness back up to a respectable level and getting my weight back down to not looking like a sausage in bib shorts. I have always been fascinated with how quickly and quietly fitness comes back to you with a solid block of training. It almost seems like one day you’re barely getting through a one hour trainer ride and the next you’re ticking off 120 miles with 15,000+ feet of elevation gain in under 9 hours (on a Tuesday). With a few more equally encouraging training weeks under my belt, the thought of completing T.I. became more and more of a reality in my mind. So much so that the idea of seeing how long I could tag along with the front group started to creep in. What’s the worst that can happen? I bonk spectacularly and muscle cramp into the fetal position in the middle of nowhere Iowa? Meh, I’ve been through worse.
Trans Iowa was two weeks away and I still needed to shakedown my final bike setup. As (bad) luck would have it, some friends were planning a Boulder #groad climb day which consists of a handful of the steepest, gnarliest, rockiest, sketchiest, funnestestest dirt/gravel climbs and descents in the area. Sounds great! I’m in! Now I’m sure you can guess what happened as a result of the ride. I crashed…but not on any of the off road climbs or descents. In fact, we were on pavement about a block from my friend Dani‘s house where we had started out. I took my eyes off of my other friend Tim who was in front and slightly right of me to check for traffic behind us. I looked back up just in time to see him making a left turn in front of me, try and (unsuccessfully) steer my front wheel away from his back wheel, and instead find myself on the ground. To be fair, it wasn’t really Tim’s fault. I assumed we were turning on the next street and he assumed it was the street before. In the end, I lost some skin on the right side of my body, collected some road debris in my shoulder and acquired a limp from an extremely bruised and swollen right hip. Not a big deal. I’ve crashed before. I’m a fast healer. Really.
Needless to say it was a little more than just road rash and bruises. Technically, I had acute piriformis syndrome from the crash tweaking my hip and spine. Basically, the piriformis muscle runs from around your lower back to near your hamstring and crosses over the sciatic nerve. When it gets angry, it puts pressure on the nerve and arteries in my right leg which rewards me with a varying mixture of tightness, pain, cramping and numbness. Wait, I still have two weeks or so…surely I can get this thing to calm down by then right? RIGHT?!?!?! Not quite. Apparently, this type of thing takes time to fully heal and some people have been blessed with the gift of this annoyance for years before it subsides for good. On the bright side (because my optimism is supernatural), I found out that it’s only mildly tight and a dull throbbing pain when cycling, so as long as I avoid standing up to climb or hike-a-bike situations, it should be somewhat manageable. It’s a good thing Iowa is mostly flat and b-roads are well maintained.
The morning of the race, my phone alarm goes off and remember thinking I must have set it wrong, it can’t possibly be 2am. I had gone to bed later than I wanted due to last minute weather checking which lead to last minute kit changes, which lead to last minute ride food changes, which lead to last minute setup changes, which lead to me laying down somewhere around midnight. It’s a good thing that sleep isn’t really that important and Trans Iowa is a short race.
With a belly full of extra-salty chicken noodle soup and rice, I rolled away from the Comfort Inn with a little over two miles to ride to the start outside of Bikes To You. Pre-race nerves had me surprisingly awake and I did a couple of short punchy efforts to assess the hip and back pain situation. Not great but not exactly terrible either. It’s a good thing I’m out of sarcastic punchlines at the end of paragraphs.
Despite never having ridden over 206 miles previous to the event, only two things truly worried me. How much hike-a-bike would the b-roads require and would I be able to read the cue sheets without my glasses? I found out the answer to the cue sheet question the second I received them at around 3:40am…Nope. Well, this is going to make things interesting. My race plan was to stay with the front group until I physically couldn’t anymore. If at any point I found myself getting dropped I wouldn’t make the mistake I made at DK200 the year before and try to ride solo. I would wait for at least one other person to work with and conserve something while making forward progress. Not being able to read the cue sheets didn’t really change much except maybe add a bit more importance on not riding alone.
4am, and with the neutral rollout underway, I worked my way to the front and slotted in right behind Matt (MG) and Mark’s (Guitar Ted) blue Subaru as we snaked our way towards the first gravel road that would officially be the start of Trans Iowa v14. Normally I’m relatively good at controlling my nerves once I can pedal a little bit, but this was different. My heart rate was unusually high, no matter how much I tried to calm myself down. The thought of not being able to navigate on my own had me on the verge of a panic attack. Then a familiar voice and a hand on my back snapped me out of it. Before Trans Iowa, Nick Legan and I had exchanged maybe 5 sentences at various Boulder area meet-ups and events. I’m convinced that recognizing a familiar face is the only reason I didn’t have a nervous breakdown before the first gravel section.
That reminds me, if you don’t own Nick’s book, “GRAVEL CYCLING: The Complete Guide to Gravel Racing and Adventure Bikepacking,” go buy it right now. I’m serious. Just click anywhere on this entire paragraph and buy the book. It’s fantastic. He’s also much better at writing than I am. I owe it to him. You owe it to him. You owe it to yourself. #treatyoself
I had heard that the race tends to go out fast and with the gravel being extra special chunky this year, being at the front seemed like the safest place to be. A sharp right turn, a couple of honks from the horn and an enormous amount of gravel dust later, the race was on!
My first few hours of the race were spent getting a feel for the gravel, chatting with Nick, marking Dan Hughes (which was easy since no-one seemed to want to drive the race except for him), and not looking at my cue sheets once since they were useless to me. A lapse in judgement saw me open up a gap on a longer climb, only to realize that I had no idea if we needed to turn at the next intersection. There’s really no way to not feel like a complete idiot when you’re forced to soft pedal and wait for the group to catch up because you have no idea where you’re going. The rest of the night was spent hiding at the back of the pack in embarrassment.
The sun was just starting to appear as we rolled onto our first b-road…wait we’re ROLLING on the b-road! I specifically remember smiling as our group floated up and over the dirt climb and blasted down a rutted descent and back onto gravel. Even though we had roughly 300 miles ahead of us, the confirmation of rideable b-roads meant I didn’t have to worry about aggravating my hip more than riding 340+ miles naturally would.
With the sunrise came an unexpected (and welcomed) cease of attacks and surges. If you have ever raced a gravel or adventure race, you’re probably used to checkpoints being something you look forward to. Some water and snacks, a bike look-over, a hug from your significant other and off you go, right? It’s not quite like that at Trans Iowa. A checkpoint is basically a random park or lot with some T.I. volunteers that will take down your number to verify you were there, give you new cue sheets and send you on your way. No water, snacks or hugs (although to be fair I never asked anyone for a hug). With new cue sheets in hand, I took my wind jacket off, stuffed it in my pocket and rolled out with the rest of the group. I gave one quick glance at the cue sheet clipped to my stem and almost cried. “Mile: 0, Dir: N, Clear Computer! Leave CP North.” I CAN READ THE CUE SHEET!
I could not have asked for a better sense of relief, and it showed. I immediately asserted myself at the front and started to drive the pace along with Luke Wilson. Before I knew it, we were on pavement and into a small town where our first Casey’s General Store stop would happen. Having no idea how long the group would take nor having officially met anyone in the group yet, I figured it was a better idea to skip the bathroom break and grab some water and snacks and wait outside. This ended up being the right strategy since everyone loaded up and rolled out within a few minutes.
Luke wasted no time hitting the front and I could already sense that he might be someone to watch. If you don’t know who Luke is, he is pretty easy to pick out within a pack of cyclists. Just look for the one person that doesn’t look like a cyclist at all. His calves are the size of my quads and despite his larger build, the guy can climb, REALLY well. I don’t exactly remember when Luke rolled off the front of the group, but I do remember thinking it was awfully early since we weren’t even 100 miles into the race. I also remember wondering if anyone was going to bring him back or if the plan was to let him dangle off the front until the persistent headwind tired him out.
Since I had no idea at the time who Luke was, I thought it might be a good time to see if I could gather some info on if he might be strong enough to solo almost 300 miles. The only person I recognized from following T.I. over the years was Greg Gleason. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit, eventually asking who the freight train off the front was. Greg mentioned that he had raced Trans Iowa a couple of times before and finished once but this year he looked MUCH stronger. That’s all I needed to hear.
Glancing down at the cue sheet, I decided to wait until we had a tailwind to try and bridge to Luke. The gap had grown substantially and the fear that I had waited too long crept into the back of my mind. When we made the turn and the wind was at our backs, I stood up and sprinted until I was spun out in my highest gear and settled into my aero-bars. Head down and putting as much into the pedals as I could, only peaking up to see if I was making any progress. After what seemed like an eternity of chasing, I was finally within meters of Luke. He glanced back and with the last bit of air left in my completely spent lungs I gasped, “We’ve got a good gap. Wanna work together?”
Luke answered with some variant of “Yes” and immediately took a pull. Normally that wouldn’t bother me at all, but I had just spent a ridiculously long time well above my threshold power to catch him and I just wasn’t ready to hang on for dear life yet. Eventually, my legs felt adequate enough to take my turn at the front. We traded pulls for a handful of miles before I started to feel ill. I had done a decent job of eating and drinking while back in the group and at that intensity, my stomach was doing its job like a champ. My guess is that I got a bit overzealous with the eating and drinking and the higher intesity brought everything to a halt. I took one last pull, Luke came around and he was gone. He did look back and ask if I was ok, to which I answered “Yup, I’m alright,” as I soft pedaled into no mans land. I finally came to a stop expecting to vomit, but it was just a few dry heaves and coughs. To be honest, even without my little episode, Luke most likely would have dropped me. Every time he took a turn on the front, I was having a hard time holding his wheel. Note to self: Do not let strong riders get 400+ meter gaps before trying to bridge.
Just as I was clipping back in, Greg Gleason rolled by and asked if I was alright. I’m sure I mumbled something, but I doubt it was comprehensible. Having learned my lesson by riding almost 100 miles by myself at Dirty Kanza 200, I made sure Greg didn’t get too far up the road. When it seemed like I got my stomach back, I made the push to get back up to Greg. Not much later we were joined by Walter Zitz.
The next 50 miles or so consisted of Greg dropping back into a patch of what he called “survival riding”, Walter and I missing a turn which added 2.7 bonus miles to our day allowing Greg to slip ahead, and the three of us finally coming back together and forming what would be the group of the day. Even though I knew Greg and Walter had ridden together and won Trans Iowa in the past, I wasn’t sure at first if that was the plan for the three of us. Several hours, about 200 miles, a slice of Casey’s pizza and an admission of my terrible night vision later, it was clear that we were going to roll this one in as a trio.
As the miles rolled by, it seemed like we weren’t just holding on but gaining momentum. Sure, Luke was up the road quite a way but our pace was solid and I was feeling better than I thought I would after covering the distance we had. I even caught myself imagining what it would feel like to finish tied for 2nd, or maybe even 1st, if we made a big push through the forecasted freezing temps that night would bring. Let’s not get too far ahead, I thought.
The cue sheet said to turn left onto 120th Street so we did, got chased by a not so friendly looking dog, and continued down the road until we arrived at 238th Avenue. Hmm, that’s strange, we’re supposed to be turning on 338th not 238th. On any other ride / race, this is the part where you pull your phone out and zoom into a Google Map to see what the problem is. Since GPS is only allowed for recording the ride data, this isn’t an option – so we back tracked to figure out where we went wrong. This time the dog that was at the corner house got a bit braver and starting coming awfully close to us despite all the “NO!” we were yelling at it. It must be a mistake. Maybe a typo? With all of the emphasis that Mark puts on physically driving the route before and even during the event, it seemed like an unlikely occurrence, but what do I know. Luckily, I’m with veterans, right?
“YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU!”
Ultimately, the responsibility falls on each one of us individually, but the decision was to sprint past that damn dog one more time and continue along what we assumed was the correct route. The three of us did pick the pace up a bit, but I’m not quite sure it had anything to do with catching Luke. The last we had heard was that he was an hour up on us, which I just assumed would stay that way until the temps dropped at night or his day long solo would take its toll on him.
I personally expected to see Mark and MG before Checkpoint 2 like we had occasionally all day, but we never did. When we rolled into the park to get our new cue sheets, the first thing I asked was if there was a fountain, since I had been out of water for a while. Luckily there was a water pump that the volunteers assured they had been drinking from and not gotten sick…yet. That was good enough for me! Filled both of my 1000ml bottles, clipped my cue sheets and finally asked how long ago Luke had come through. I believe the answer they gave us was, “Less than 30 minutes.” I later found out through Mark’s blog that we had only missed him by 8 minutes.
With the sun setting, about 100 miles to go, and the sight of Luke stopped in the middle of an intersection about 300-400 meters away putting his windbreaker jacket on prompted a quick, “How is everyone feeling and are we chasing?” conversation. The consensus was that there was no need to put anymore effort than we were into what seemed like an inevitable catch. Inevitable until Luke looked back to see us, zipped his jacket up, turned his headlight on and sprinted away. A few rolling hills later he had once again put some distance on us but was still very much in view.
I could see a truck at the top of a particularly steep climb and I just assumed it was either the photographer or Mark and MG. It was neither. T.I. volunteers, Tony and Mike were standing outside of the truck and told us we should stop.
“You guys missed a turn.”
“No we didn’t”
“No really, you guys did. Let me show you on a map”
“Can we back track and correct it? I mean it would be about 24 miles to 120th and 24 miles back to this point.”
“Sorry guys, it was before CP2 and we can’t let you go past a checkpoint.”
Right about then, Mark and MG pulled up in the Subaru to confirm that we were in fact, disqualified. I thanked Mark for the opportunity to come out and race and added, “I’ll be back next year to give the win another shot.” I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear back from him, but whatever I expected didn’t happen. He simply said nothing at all.
Walter decided he wanted to ride the rest of the course, which I respected. Greg suggested riding back to Grinnell directly which was about 30 paved miles away. We eventually settled on riding the 5-7 miles to the Casey’s on route, get some pizza and wait for a friend of his to pick us up. I spent a couple of minutes fumbling with my jacket, putting on warmer gloves and turning on my lights while Greg and Walter rolled away and became barely visible blinking lights down the road. By the time I started on my way again, it was completely dark out and I really couldn’t see their lights anymore. “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU!” I thought to myself.
Maybe a mile down the road I could make out a blinking light near the side of the road at the next intersection. Greg was just finishing up a phone call with his wife. We didn’t chat much on the ride to Casey’s but I did a lot of thinking and maybe even some tearing up. This “stupid” bike race had gotten the best of me, not physically but emotionally. I let a navigational mistake happen and the consequence is actually pretty easy to accept. The specifics and context are harder to brush off. Having only 100 miles left with the race leader in sight, feeling relatively good and with the company of two past T.I. winners, I can’t help but to feel frustrated and upset.
Frustrated that all of the time, effort and cost of preparing for this one day suddenly felt like a complete waste. Upset that I don’t get to write the last 100 miles worth of words to this story because I didn’t get the opportunity for it to happen. Instead, a trivial blurb about eating a couple slices of Casey’s pizza, taking a shower and going to sleep before I had planned to is how I get to finish this off. That and reading this a few days later:
“5/5/18: Trans Iowa will not happen again. In case you haven’t heard or read the news, there will not be a T.I.v15. Read HERE for the reasons why. With my (Guitar Ted’s) not being involved in producing this, there cannot be a v15 and there are no plans to “hand over” the event at this time, or in the foreseeable future. Thank you for all the years of support and for the memories!”
* Lauf True Grit Gravel Bike
* FSE Wheels G40/30X Disc Tubeless Wheelset
* Ashima AiNeon Disc Brake Rotor 160mm
* MAXXIS Rambler 40c EXO Tires
* SRAM eTap 1x Hack (Wolftooth RoadLink + SLF Hyper Speed System)
* AbsoluteBlack Oval 40T Chainring
* HED ClipLite Aero Bars
* Rapha Brevet Bar Tape
* Dash Strike9 Saddle
* Revelate Feed Bags x 2
* DarkSpeedWorks Speedpack 915D Top Tube Bag
* Silca Seat Capsule Premio Saddle Pack
* Passport Half Frame Bag
* Light & Motion Imjin Bike Light + 6 Cell Battery
* Petzl Headlamp
* Anker Powerbank
* Wahoo ELEMNT GPS Bike Computer
* RaceFace Next SL Crank Arms + Road Cinch Power Meter Spindle
* Crank Bros Eggbeater 11 Pedals
* BarYak QPro Cue Sheet Holder
* Tune Wassertrager 2.0 Carbon Bottle Cages x 3
* Science In Sport 1000ml Water Bottle x 2
* Via Bicycle Cafe 500ml Water Bottle
* Rapha Merino Sleeveless Base Layer
* Rapha Brevet Cargo Bib Shorts
* Rapha Pro Team Training Jersey
* Rapha Pro Team Rain Vest
* Rapha Pro Team Wind Jacket
* Rapha Brevet Flyweight Wind Jacket
* Via Bicycle Cafe Cycling Cap
* Velotoze Compression Socks x 2
* Bont Vaypor G Shoes
* Gore Windstopper Arm Warmers
* Gore Windstopper Leg Warmers
* Sealskinz Shoe Covers
* 100% Speedcraft Sunglasses + Clear Lens
* POC Lightweight Full Finger Gloves
* Smartwool Silk Glove Liners
* 45NRTH Sturmfist 5 Gloves
* BUFF Neck Warmer
* POC Ventral Helmet
* Entire Box of Smores Pop Tarts x 1
* Muscle Milk (WHY?!?!?!) x 1
* 7600ml (260 ounces) of Water
* Bottles of Coke x 2
* Packets of Skratch Active Hydration x 8
* Pounches of Clif Bar Margherita Shot Bloks x 3
* SIS Gels w/ Caffeine x 8
* PayDay Candy Bars x 3
* Slices of Casey’s Pizza x 2
* Grocery Store Ham And Cheese Sandwich x 1
* Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich x 1
* Chocolate Milk x 2
* 300ml Flask Maple Syrup + LOTS of Sea Salt Added x 1
Odds & Ends:
* Total Miles Ridden: 245.7 Miles
* Work: 11042kj
* Normalized Power: 220w
* 1 Minute Power: 580w to bridge to Luke
* Ride Time: 16:36:26
* Elevation Gain: 14,804 ft
* Punctures: 0
* Mechanicals: 0
* Crashes: 0
* Chased by a dog or pack of dogs: 5
* Disqualification: 1