As it is said, misery loves company. Gather together a group of people who put themselves through the trials of preparation to cycle hundreds of miles off the pavement, the tales of bodies abused and edges of fatigue pushed are plentiful. On a normal year, the cycling community starts the competitive year with a trek to Stillwater OK for the Mid South, the year was seemingly normal except that the looming questions of an impending global pandemic hovered above our paths like a rain cloud ready to burst open at any moment, clouding our experiences of both The Mid South and going into the spring season of gravel. I think I can speak for most of us when I say that I left The Mid South with a heavy heart, which is the exact opposite of the jubilation I normally fell upon our departure.
As we drove home, hearing news about grocery stores shelves being cleared, inability to obtain basic supplies for daily life as people panicked at an unknown virus making it’s way through the US, I couldn’t shake the thought that I may not get to enjoy this family we had chosen for ourselves, to enjoy our enthusiasms together, to be in company of kindred spirits. This weighed heavy on my heart.
I wasn’t around when gravel started, but in this year, unlike any other, I would get the chance to know what grassroots gravel felt like.
Grassroots is defined as “ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organizations membership”
At the beginning of August I had a conversation with Bob Cummings who is the Team Captain for Panaracer and race organizer for The Gravelking Hondo out of Augusta KS. We chatted about many things: his introduction and rise into gravel cycling after a hard left out of the world of racing karts, what the sport means to him and what is great about these small grassroots races.
At the beginning of our conversation I asked Bob how finding cycling came about for him, he told me “I had a bad weekend kart racing and came home frustrated, aggravated and there was a spring race in Lawrence so I decided to try and see what this bike racing was and gave it a shot. Did my first bike race and my kart never moved off the stand since”.
Bob noted that was several years back, but I see so many parallels of what it is to be a cyclist in the time of COVID. We are frustrated. We might have been using cycling to lose the dreaded quarantine weight. We may have needed to connect to something bigger than ourselves. We might need time to not have to think about the stress of the world as it is. We may need a break from the Covid-19 induced slow-down of life, forcing us to evaluate hard truths, having the time to see things more clearly.
Every new cancellation decree shatters me. ‘X Y Z Race Postponed’ , ‘Race cancelled’ , ‘Race deferred to 2021’. The blows don’t stop.
Then we saw a rise in Virtual Races, which in all honesty sounded so cheesy to me. But once we were given a clear guideline on how to ride safely in groups or within our own pods, it seems like we all slipped effortlessly into the mystical grassroots movement we’ve heard about from our gravel ancestors.
Just going out and riding. Maybe together. Maybe alone. But on the gravel.
But, deep down, we can’t shake the addicting draw of a race. Bob originally had to cancel his race after Dirty Kanza rescheduled on top of his date, which was a race he was committed to riding for Panaracer. He felt it was best to cancel and did, but then decided to ask for a little help from Bobby Smith (of Elrod’s Cirque out of Winfield Kansas) and decided to kick it back up knowing Bobby helped years prior as a volunteer and ran a successful race of his own.
However, putting together a race in the times of COVID is not an easy task and so many risks have to be deliberately weighed. Bob elaborated a bit on what it takes to have a safe race, and said that at this year’s Gravelking Hondo on September 12th, there will be required masks when not racing even at the start and during neutral wave roll out and riders are to only remove masks once distanced on gravel at the riders discretion. They will be temperature checking each rider in the morning and unlike many other, races they will continue to have chase vehicles behind the last rider to make sure every single person is accounted for. Rage Against the Chainring series, ran by Mark Moerner at Apostle Bike Works out of Wichita KS, has followed similar guidelines including temping and encouraging masks as well as social distancing.
It may sound complicated, but these are all simple requirements to continue do this safely. The most common thing I’ve seen work in the advantage of races is the naturally smaller pool size for these smaller events. Bob has had this race for six years and he said this year they are ahead of what they normally are on registered riders. The success of these smaller community and virtual races might not be considered booming, but it’s giving little pieces of ourselves back, maybe a little better off than we started. It is letting us flex those newly found abilities we have unearthed we have discovered out on our own the last several months. Or better yet, it’s reminding us what we had before.
The theme for these rides are all different, but Bob was inspired by the roads that The Gravelking Hondo course provided and marveled at the thought that at some point in the plains the course follows were hunted and inhabited by Native Americans at a time in history. In years past The Hondo has had Native American tones, but he mentioned they are scaling that back this year to be cognizant of the enlightenment of appropriation of other cultures. Which as so many of us know, has also been quite the movement as well in gravel this year.
The importance of supporting these smaller races that are taking the time and awareness to do it right is important. Their willingness to weather the storm of COVID, move forward with inclusivity, change without qualms, and give us ALL something to do safely, is what is directing our attention back to what really matters. Our small little pods, ourselves on our own. This isn’t about big swag bags or chutes full of cowbells, it’s stripping it back down to its most original state, right in our own communities and that’s not so bad.
There’s a common trend in these organizers, they want to give us back a taste of our roads, to give us our community back in the safest way possible during the most complicated year. During the Orange Mud Just Ride 100 our own pod, we have been with since the start, was able to ride roads we’ve never ridden. By ourselves, soaking in a cool down river along the way, supporting each other as our own volunteers, it wasn’t cheesy at all. It filled our cups, it surprised us and it got us back out there.
I felt motivated to reach out to Bob because of monologue in my head wanting to share this: Support your little, local races that keeping it small and safe. They are out there trying just like we are, knowing better and doing better each step of the way. But at the end of the day just be out there, these roads have never felt more like home.
I think we've both been hemming and hawing about getting a blog post up about all of our experiences in completing the Landrun Double. Not because we haven't wanted to share all of the cool stories and pictures, but because I think we both really wanted to feel the feeling of completion, which was followed quickly by intense feelings of abolition. It's all we've been able to talk about for the last two weeks, to each other, to others. Those Mid-South red dirt roads find a way to worm into your soul and fester in the most delicious and painful way.
Thursday afternoon we arrived into Stillwater full of excitement, and despite our horrible attempt at training through winter. We both had chosen to approach the event with an "it is what it is" attitude after our nothing short of brutal winter and a few rounds of illness in our home. Based on conversation with others it sounds like that was what everyone else was dealing with as well. Nonetheless, we were excited to get settled in and down to the shop to see everyone. And even made it out to scout some of the roads we had ridden at the registration party months before. We couldn't even believe it, the roads were dusty, dry as a bone.
Thursday evening was definitely nothing short of a big family reunion which is what Landrun always feels like. We were able to make it out to dinner that evening with some friends David & Amy (give them a follow, they have the coolest Insta!) we met at the Registration party in November who we had grown a friendship with all winter long through instagram as well as our Orange Mud Dirt Unit group. They are seriously the coolest, kindest and most supportive people and we literally left Stillwater missing them. Coming out of winter and not seeing your 'bike fam' for months, you're always greeted with a barrage of hugs. Landrun is 90% hugs, so many hugs.
So we had a good helping of Pasta at Da Vinci's, our new favorite place in Stillwater to eat (except for fuzzy's) and headed back to get settled in and go to sleep before our first big day
Friday Morning went relatively smooth, we were able to get around without too much of a rush as we'd made sure we were up in plenty of time. The starting line was buzzing and there were a lot of familiar faces which was such a comfort as we started our day.
As we got started we really paced well, not too hard but enough to keep warm. There seriously wasn't a cloud in the sky and that was welcomed considering our training was mostly done in the gym or on the trainer because weather was so wishy-washy. The first two aid-stations came and went pretty easily, and as we neared the third I could feel some doubt creeping in. I hadn't made it over 13 miles through my training cycle, and quincy hadn't made it over 16. As we approached mile 15 I took note that I wasn't having any hitches in my giddyup as I had predicted I might and ate my fair share of salty potatoes and bacon (ZOMGGG). Originally we had planned to run our own races, meeting up occasionally at every or every other aid station (which were every 5 miles and SO convenient). But because of Quincy's knee issues, and my under-trained entire body we decided to run every mile together before we even got started. By mile 15 Quincy's knee was barking. Downhills hurt, uphills hurt, nothing really improved for him from here which he anticipated.
I felt really great all the way through mile 20 really and that was when my feet just really hit their wall. My legs never really ran out of juice, but the foot and shin pain from the impact really took it's toll on my energy. I walked, we walked A LOT. We've been asked how we did it, and that is the answer. The run we knew would be survival, and that as we had reminded ourselves through our training that "iron sharpens iron". And generally we kept a good cadence, playing cat and mouse the rest of the day with plenty of smiles.
As we approached what felt like the outskirts of town we felt renewed briefly before re-realizing how it takes so much more time to cover ground on foot vs. tire. At that point we both felt like we were barely moving. And even with this insane mood boost as we hit pavement provided by the group ride rolling out of town (YOU GUYS YOU MADE ME CRY) we were still moving quite slow. We finally hit the main drag and laughed at the irony of a sign "small engine repair here" it read. Quincy joked "do you need your small engine repaired?", I replied "hell yes".
Stupidly we had started the race without routes, and as we got into town we didn't really know where we had to turn in. It's a lot more clear when you aren't almost last, haha. We had a few people behind us for sure and we really wanted to make sure we stayed ahead of them mentally. Finally we found our way and forced our feet to run the last mile.
It's kind of funny, everyone talks about the Bobby hug. It's certainly what we came for. But it's really that that hug is the start of what feels like the most supported day of your life. Your whole bike fam is waiting for you. I've never been more taken care of. From the moment we walked away from bobby with our hearts souring we were fawned over, told how amazing we are, handed beers, chocolate milks and more hugs than we can count. We were both exhausted, starving etc; but it only took a few beats to get over the roughness of the day to feel lifted up by our family so high that the next day seemed feasible and real....at least momentarily.
A few weeks ago...we did a thing. We took a BIG step towards living our "life is better tandem" mantra, zipped down to Stillwater bright and early on a Saturday morning and got registered up for LANDRUN DOUBLE. *CUE SCARED STOKE-FEST".
Initially I think we were both just completely scared out of our minds and in a "what did we just do" mindset. But now that we've sunk into a bit of pre-training, we are both just really excited.
If you aren't familiar with Landrun 100 - you should make yourself familiar. Because it is a race like no other. And last year they added the Landrun Double. The Landrun Double will be a gravel road 50K on Friday, followed by the regular Landrun 100 on Saturday. So far we are planning to ride the 100 portion on our Salsa Powderkeg, but depending on conditions we might just end up on singles. Either way it is going to be AWESOME.
So we got all registered, kitted up and went out for some sweet sweet Oklahoma gravel. We only did 20 miles of the 31 because #excuses, and after wished we had just stuck it out because ole Bobby lead everyone right through his clearly favorite thing in the world. A big ole muddy crossing. But we wanted taco's and mama's body isn't quite ready for all those hills. But I did learn more about myself and how I climb best that day so that was a great take-away.
We snarfed a fair amount of Fuzzy's tacos and queso before headed home for the weekend to get our heads wrapped around our training coming up.
If anyone wonders what we do for dates....this is a pretty good indicator of a date day for us. Adventure + Food = our best days.
Day two of our Beaver Lake Trip greeted us bright and early at 6 a.m. We packed up some grub and hopped in the car to head out. Of course despite our early departure, true to road trip style we had to stop at approximately 2 1/2 Walmart's (which are luckily spread out less than 1 mile from each other in Arkansas) to find a bike lock for the tandem and also the comfort of some aloe vera for my scorched skin after a day on Quincy's Aunt and Uncles boat. After gathering what we needed and driving a little bit longer we made it into Hobbs State Park to the Hidden Diversity Multi-use trail.
Arkansas wasn't a place I had visited up until the last few years and as 1/2 mountain girl 1/2 midwest girl i'm always surprised by how the trees line the roads like big leafy walls, the lake water is so clear, and the nature everywhere is unreal. We were both so in our element stepping onto the trails, starting at Bashore Ridge Loop we initially paced together as we always do and then broke off into our own runs meeting up naturally. These trails really hit every delicious trail running note for both of us. They were such a great balance of flow, lows and longer climbs than we are used to. And the best part about running with Quincy is he clears all the spiderwebs for me like the sweet gentleman he is.
We met up halfway through the loop at the bottom of a climb for a few pictures and to check out the view of Beaver Lake and made our way back up the climb finding our own paces again. After finishing that loop we took a quick break, and made our way onto the Dutton hollow loop to run more. We wrapped it up with just short of 7 miles and we were ravenous.
Good thing for friends that know what's makes for good post trail grub. We heard from a good handful of friends that Pedalers Pub in Bentonville was good. If you have a chance to go to Bentonville definitely stop by and have a huge ceramic vat of Spinach Artichoke dip for us. It was seriously the best we ever had, and we talked about it for days after. Luckily it was 30 minutes away from Hobbs State Park so we were able to let our stomachs settle before riding again. **Pro tip, they offer a 10% discount if you come in after a group ride which they graciously gave us since we were headed to ride
Albert was able to meet us at the trail to join us for our second activity of the day which always adds a great element to the fun. Having Albert around is settling, he always has a solid plan, always comes prepared with his cooler and extra tools, and he is so considerate and helpful to other riders (us included).
This time we started on the Little Clifty trail, which is across the street from the trails we ran earlier in the morning. The trails are close and plentiful in this state and it did not take but a minute to be on the most primo trails i've ever been on. Being on the back of a tandem is not something that is easy to explain or write about, which sort of makes this blog a challenge. But in short it's riding a bike on trails you have no idea how to manage (at least I sure don't. I'm horrible on a bike!), and at the mercy of the person in front of you that is controlling every single thing about the bike. It is terrifying and exhilarating. The trails we did on the tandem were quite a bit different than the trails that were right across the street, the climbs were tough. We only had to bail once about 2/3 of the way up a gnarly rocky climb. Had it not been loose we both agreed we would have made it without issue despite it being so long and relenting. The plan was to do closer to 15 miles of trails but after so many climbs and also fast welcomed decents my legs were begging for a break. This ride was the first ride we've taken on trails outside of our home trails at Santa Fe lake, and it was a true test to our prior practice in skills and our endurance. Also a huge wake up call that we have a ways to go before we are where we want to be and big ego boost that we handled a lot of moments on the trail with surprisingly little verbal communication with some finesse we didn't know we had. We finished with big smiles on faces, and it was so nice to forget about some of our looming adult responsibilities (i.e. painting the exterior of our house, bills, work, errands etc; etc;)
On the way back we decided it was going to be a chill night, so we ate some supper with the group after showering up and headed out to the dock to relax and go for a dip in the lake.
I woke up on my 31st birthday feeling loved and grateful to live a life that allows us to celebrate another year older, or even just surviving renovations, bills and life with adventures that allow us to submerge ourselves in nature, and meet kind people with the same love for the outdoors. It's even better that so many of those adventures get to be shared with each other, and with family.
We adopted a saying a few years ago that has just kind of stuck.
"Life is Better Tandem"
And to be honest, that lifestyle started a little before we ever picked up our Salsa Powderkeg from District Bicycles out of Stillwater OK. And even before we ever took a trip to Colorado by ourselves in an effort to resuscitate our failing marriage.
It started as a feeling, that was impressed upon us by Bobby Wintle, owner of District Bicyles at the 2015 Landrun 100. We didn't even know that feeling would bite us and change our lives together and change the way we raise our family from there forward. But more on Unlearn Pavement later
On any given weekend you can find us, avoiding adult responsibilities as much as possible in an effort to find ourselves disconnected from the typical mundane and connected to nature, friendships and each other.
This weekend we found ourselves in Arkansas celebrating Amber's 31st birthday.
We clocked out early from work and hurried down to Beaver lake late afternoon so we could start our day early Saturday.
Saturday, we accidentally slept in but parted ways for our own adventures for the day. Quincy geared up and headed to Lake Leatherwood near Eureka Springs with my dad Albert. The parking lot was packed with empty bike racks when they arrived so they knew they were in for a good day.
After some last minute adjustments to the bikes and gear we headed to the trail head, where we encountered an eager young man that stopped us to give some trail info and directions to us, which was helpful due to never having ridden the area before. Upon starting the ride we were very pleased with the terrain, some techy sections with tree roots and rocks, climbs and descents, and the always appreciated flowy sections.
With the help of a few adjustments, the bikes were dialed in and we settled into the usual pace of pushing the limits, hoofing it around the lake and encountered some brand new trails and the infamous direction arrows on the trees for the following weekends race. So, of course now that we are on the race course we have to push even harder as if we were racing.
By this time we had made it to the last section of trail, almost all the way around to the trail head, where we encountered a lot of climbing and switchbacks, my favorites. And of course when you do a lot of climbing you get to do a lot of descending too, which was a great way to end the 20+ miles of riding for the day.
We were eager to get our ritual chocolate milks at the car and after loading up the bikes and gear and doing a quick inspection for ticks we hopped in the car and headed back to house for a much needed shower which was followed up with a delicious fajita dinner with our family and friends back at the lake house.
And that was only one day of our weekend.... Simon Fam