We as a species are by design imperfect and yet one cannot help but be inspired when every once in awhile one of us steps up and really makes a concerted effort to go beyond the call of duty, rising well above the status quo or even beyond what we would consider the higher echelon. Such was the case this last weekend at the Almanzo 100, where our charming concierge, Chris Skogen, from pre-race festivities (including Friday night camping and grilling in the host’s backyard and breakfast on Saturday), to a flawlessly planned race (with meticulous attention to detail, including spot-on descriptive maps), to a delightful post race party (including generous prizes, cold beer, and fresh sweet breads). Simply put—every element of the event was outstandingly orchestrated to be the very best. It is committed cycling-philanthropists like Chris Skogen that really make racing such an enjoyable endeavor to me and many others. In fact, when I reflect on the last five bicycle races that I have done, I must submit that the state of grassroots bike racing in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin is darn good and getting better. The incredible scope and creativity of last October’s WEMS Thunderdown at the Underground, February’s Arrowhead 135, April’s Ragnarok 105, and May’s Trans-Iowa & Almanzo 100 are mirror images of their brilliant creators. BRAVO to those visionaries that dare to see beyond riding loops around a ski area or a city park or paved highway. BRAVO, WELL DONE, BULLY, HOORAY, and a simple but heartfelt, “thank-you” to the men and women that have been instrumental in developing these five uniquely captivating challenges. If you are reading this and have not participated in any one of these unique and varied events—get busy signing up cuz you are missing out and shame on you for not supporting these maestros of the enduro cycling movement :)
Having elected to employ special-ops/commando tactics in planning my Almanzo race strategy; early after work on Friday, I fortified my stocks of potential energy by downing several New Glarus fermented black wheat products, staggered off to bed by 8:00 p.m., and then left Duluth @ 2:55 a.m. on Saturday amid a full blown snow squall. Note: The plan in short involved a car-to-car sixteen hour sortie arriving back home on Saturday, early evening, with plenty of time left to play the family man role. The bad weather buoyed my already soaring spirits, (for bad weather is a great equalizer), as I raced my trusty Chevy Prism toward the southern latitudes. I arrived earlier than planned at the start, so I drove out to my parent’s house but I decided not to wake them as they already think that I am crazy, so I didn’t want to give further amino to their threats of disowning me.
At the start around 6:45 a.m. Chris, of course, was ready to go and immediately handed me a personalized race portfolio that was better planned and organized than my TIAA-CREF 403(b) retirement file and probably worth more as well. The packet included everything anyone would possibly need to complete the race and several other nice amenities as well, including a very cool sewn patch commemorating the event. Joe Meiser, stalwart winner of the recent Trans-Iowa and all around great guy, arrived shortly thereafter. Joe is off to Banff in mid-June to begin the Great Divide Race that follows the western continental divide for over 2800 miles, I am seriously picking him for a top three finish in that amazing event…The kid is tough as nails, smart, motivated, but also has the temperament to go and go and go for the long haul and yet remain calm and pleasantly amused by the absurdity of it all. Although endowed with a limited repertoire of talents, I do possess an eye for spotting gifted athletes that have the potential to assist me in my quixotic adventures. An ability I used, back in the day, many times to recruit strong, but novice climbing partners that would upon a few times out be hooked, soon thereafter better than me, and eventually fired up to drag me up climbs that I would never had been able to achieve leading. Such is my approach with Mr. Meiser, and many other cyclists that possess real talent, yet despite this seemingly self-serving narcissistic approach, it must be pointed out that I never forget my role as a bit player with limited power and scope of influence…My goal is only to “win” a minor part in the big production, no aspirations for the big neon marquee lights for me, only a brief mention in the small print at the end of the credits.
In any event, I knew that my primary plan would be to try and stay on big Joe’s tire and if things really went well, WE would be able to stay with Jesse Rients and Ray Coyle, both of whom are well respected and outstanding racers, and probably on any given day, among the best in the Midwest. The race started at 8:00 a.m. sharp to a strong tailwind and overcast skies. The first two hours of the race were quite cold and I was therefore happy to have elected to have worn a jacket, wool jersey, full gloves, leg warmers, two pairs of shorts, and wool medium weight socks. Towards the end of the six hour+ event, I did just begin to sweat, but I was never uncomfortable. I would always take a cold day of racing over a hot humid day of racing. For the first hour or more, given a favorably strong tail wind, the pace was easy and highly entertaining with lots of banter between riders. I especially enjoyed listening to the never-dull Josh Peterson. I suppose around the 40 mile mark or so the pace started to pick up and there was less goofing around and more focus on doing the race thing. I remember worrying that if the paced increased much more, I would get geared out as I was running a single 36 on the front. Yet whenever I started to feel sorry for myself, I just looked over at Nicholas Martin, Jeff Rockne, or Nick Oswald, all of whom were running single speeds, with Rocke going fixed! Again, as alluded to above, I have an eye for talent and thus I could tell even at this early point that Jesse Rients was race fit and barring a mechanical was going to win the race. Last year at the Almanzo, wily old Dave Pramann, Terry Brannick, Joe, and I had tricked Jesse at the checkpoint in that he and others thought that the group was stopping and thus with a good team effort, the four of us working hard together to gap him (sans a defensive wind), while he waited in line at a gas station to buy food and drink with several others; we ultimately pulled off a coup of sorts by beating him by a few minutes, but he would not be playing any games this year.
Suddenly and impressively Jesse attacked going after Jim Cochran’s initial attempt at a solo break. The solo effort had not stirred too much emotion in the group as the general conclusion was that he would not be able to hold the gap, but as the lone rider seemed to gain a bit on the group, with a burst of power, Jesse was off the front and then Ray close behind. Impetuous as always, I jumped up and tried to give pursuit, but I know my place, so I quickly surrendered and fell back to the safety of Joe’s wheel and the comfort of the chase group.
Essentially this moment marked the beginning of the real race. Remember that I suffer from many ailments including bouts of convenient dementia so the following rendition of what thus occurs is suspect, but represents the best of what I can recall. A chase group of about six or seven rolled into the checkpoint which was at approximately mile number sixty-three. Joe, Jim Palmer of Rochester, and I took off as soon as we got the second maps in pursuit of what we believed to be a fragmented trio of Coyle, Cochran, and Martin (the single-speeder). At that point everyone believed that Jesse was going to win, unless he a got a flat or the like, but there too seemed to exist a sense of optimism that, given the wind factor, we could catch the others because they did not seem to be working well with each other. We got into a nice rotation with Joe as the inspirational leader and Jim Palmer doing at least his fair share and probably more until we caught a glimpse of a rider up ahead. The fact of the matter is that Jim Palmer was the catalyst or impetus on several occasions when the group seemed to momentarily falter. It was not long after the checkpoint that we caught up to a depleted Jim Cochran. He jumped in with the group and gained some respite from the strong headwinds that had plagued us for the last 40 or so miles of the race. We moved along at a good pace, but not a desperate pace, confident in the fact that we had time and momentum on our side. Sure enough with plenty of distance between us and the finish, we reeled in the single speeder, who had incredibly ridden a major portion of the course alone. Then, now a group of five, far out ahead, but at least visible, we saw what we assumed to be was Ray Coyle, fighting the tempestuous winds with no one else but his substantial fortitude and tenacity (two good guys to have on ones side!).
My heart soared as I was feeling great and still had some legs, so feeling my oats (which is a rare occurrence now that I approach my December years) I wanted to initiate a break away with the intent of catching up to Ray. But alas it was not to be for he was too strong and our group was by that point uninspired. Of course, I hoped that Joe would go with me, but he was weary from all his training. My next choice was Palmer, as he was riding strong, but I suspect that he is a pragmatist so he knew that the odds were too great. So, I was content to make ceremonial solo attempts with about fifteen miles to go, then again on an asphalt section with about five to go and then resigned myself, smiling all the way, to falling victim to the busy city traffic riding and the one block roadie-esque sprint that was my undoing at last year’s Almanzo as well…so it goes…
Kudos again to all the volunteers for a great day of gravel racing! Kudos to Jesse Rients for his impressive victory and Ray Coyles for earning that tough second place spot! Hurrah for Nicolas Martin, and Nick Oswald for top spots on single speeds! Three cheers for Jeff Rockne and Jason Novak for top spots in the incredible fixie class! Bravo Kelly Mac and Susannah King for one and two in the women’s class! And Bravo too to Jeremy Kershaw as you fall deeper into the obsessive sickness of enduro-cycling :)