Iowa Gravel Classic
100 km Gravel Bike Race
Whiterock Conservancy, Coon Rapids, Iowa
Saturday, July 6, 2019
Gabrielle and I don’t really consider ourselves racers. Sure, we do Gents Race and we did the Loess Hills Enduro last year, but other than an Iowa Games road race more than ten years ago, that is the extent of our “racing” experience. I’d also like to note that this is our first ever “race report” so, just like racing, we really don’t know what the heck we’re doing!
We stayed at Oak Ridge campground, 2.5 miles from the race start. We were surprised and impressed with how nice the little campground was. The shower house was quaint and spotless. The camp host was friendly and joined us for refreshments after the race. It was scenic, or “rural” as Gabrielle called it, with nice mature trees for shade. We wondered aloud how it was that we didn’t know about this little gem located just over an hour from our house on the Southside of Des Moines.
We enjoyed meeting other racers and kayakers who were camping there, including the winner of the 100-mile race, who, by the way, we owe a big thank you to. We had planned to bike over to the race start despite the two GIANT hills between our camp and the start, but he gave us a ride in the back of his pickup instead. Incidentally, on the way over I noticed the small stereo he was carrying on his bike and comment on it. He told me that he wasn’t racing, that he didn’t sleep well, and he was just going to be “riding” today. That’s funny, not just because he won, but because of what you will read in the next paragraph regarding our thoughts about racing.
Our favorite part of the camping experience was when a herd of cattle got out and wandered into the campground. We have some great pics of the cows grazing next to the Cow Bus, LOL! We will definitely visit Whiterock again in the future.
It was important for us, from a sanity standpoint, to keep telling ourselves that we aren’t racing. We repeated over and over, “We’re treating this just like any other bike ride.” “We’re just going out there to have fun, we’re not competing with anyone.” We felt confident in our ability to finish and we set that as our only real goal, just finish.
Our confidence quickly faded during our first “leisurely” ride around the area. Thursday, July 4th, I mapped us a 20-mile route from our campground over to Star Field where the race starts, a loop over to Coon Rapids and back to Oak Ridge. Fifteen miles into the ride, we were already at 1450 feet of climb! It was one giant dang hill after another. Our Friday July 5th ride was more of the same. Panic set it! “There’s no way we’re going to finish 100K!” “You know Steve and Sarah will make a route as hard and as hilly as they possibly can!” “We were in better shape last year at this time than we are now!” “Why did we even sign up for this stupid race?!” “WE’RE NOT EVEN RACERS!”
Taking the Starting Line
But we were there, we paid the registration fees, and we knew there was no way we could chicken out and not show up. So Saturday morning we took the starting line with everyone else again reiterating to anyone that would listen that we aren’t racing. Our weapon of choice was our Ventana fat bike tandem, “El Gran Jefe.” We were also sporting our Team Cow RAGBRAI jerseys with the full understanding that they were sure to intimidate the other racers!
The whole “we’re not racing” thing sounded great on paper, but once we were out there I couldn’t help noticing that we were pushing ourselves quite a bit harder than we do on our normal “bike rides.” I also noticed that we sped up when we found ourselves catching riders in front of us and also when we saw other riders catching up to us from behind. I noticed that we took fewer rest stops and shorter rest stops. I noticed that I didn’t like getting passed and felt a bit of satisfaction when I passed that guy back on the downhill. I noticed that when I saw him struggling in the deep sandy gravel with his skinny tires that we poured on a little extra juice and opened a gap on him. I noticed that happened with less than ten miles to go to the finish. I noticed that he never passed us back again. Hmmm, it seems as if maybe we were kind of racing after all. As my buddy Jim Christenson says, “It’s always a race, Pat!”
I think we might have freaked out a little bit when, after only a few yards of gravel, the course took a hard right turn and dropped steeply onto a hilly dirt road. However, we had just ridden that road the day before not realizing it was going to be part of the course and so we were not shocked or as frightened as we might have been otherwise. And we handled it with ease.
Having ridden in the area the past two days we knew what to expect, which helped calm our nerves and allowed us, I think, to take in the beauty this scenic course had to offer. It was everything the race directors said it would be, challenging with beautiful views and every type of gravel and dirt there is: fast hard pack, buff gravel, fresh chunk, and some soft sandy stuff for good measure! We were happy to have 3.5” tires which let us float over all the stuff! The B roads were outstanding and well balanced throughout the ride. Not too many, not too few.
Our fatty is equipped with a 14-speed Rholoff hub and there was only one hill so steep that we wished we had one more gear. The steep B road descents were probably the most challenging thing for us on a tandem. We had to ride the brakes pretty darn hard on a few of them. Only once though did we feel a bit out of control or unsafe. One steep B road descent had a bit of mud at the top and deep sand at the bottom and to make matters worse, a tractor pulled onto the road coming at us just as we were reaching the bottom of the hill. I was not sure for a moment there if we were going to be able to brake hard enough and get out of his way. We did though and it turned out just fine.
As tandem riders, the thing that we noticed right away and appreciated immensely was that the majority of the big climbs were preceded by nice descents. There were not a lot of climbs that started from a dead stop or flat ground with no momentum. I would say the majority of the climbs had a good descent in front of them. I know that’s important for regular bikes, but it is especially important for a tandem. And, there were a couple sections of consecutive hills that we would describe as “perfect tandem rollers.” That’s where you get huge momentum on the downhill and the climb up the other side isn’t so steep that you have to drop too many gears to muscle over it. So, we pounded over the top and, WHOOSH, fly back down the other side and up again! Now that’s fun!! Those sections were a blast and I don’t want to brag, but we did drop a couple riders on those sections.
We were both amazed at how surprisingly good we felt well into the race. Although it was humid the cloud cover for most of the day really helped. It was probably at the Casey’s rest stop when we both realized our fears of not finishing were pretty much gone. My stoker, the real power on our tandem, was stellar as always. Only once maybe around the 50ish mile marker did she say she was struggling. But we turned a corner, got a bit of wind in our face, which cooled us often and she was back to her normal power-stoker again in minutes.
With less than ten miles to go, we saw a lone racer several big hills ahead of us. As we topped the next hill we could see we had gained on that person. And on the next hill we had gained even more and saw that she was walking her bike. I told Gabrielle she must be struggling or having bike problems. At the top of the next hill though we saw her get on her bike and start riding again. And at the top of the next hill (yes I know, there were a lot of hills) that person had put distance between us again. We ran into her at the finish line and she told us she was having leg cramps, which was why she had started walking. But, she saw us coming and made herself get on and ride. She did not want to get passed. We know, NO ONE likes to get passed by a tandem! Glad we were able to provide a source of motivation! LOL!
We were pleased and relieved and maybe even a little proud of ourselves when we made the final turn onto the dirt road and saw the finishing flag! We were the first tandem to cross the line. Several people have asked how many tandem were entered and we really don’t know. We were so far ahead that we didn’t see any of them!
What a great weekend and a great day on the bike! Thank you to everyone responsible for putting on this great event!
Full results are on the Iowa Gravel Classic Facebook Page.
Photos provided by Pat & Gabrielle Coughlin.