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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gravel Grinding

I love an epic ride, and I wanted a challenge. I'd originally thought of signing up for next year's Dirty Kanza, a 200 mile gravel race that goes through the Flint Hills.

I'm on record as saying gravel roads are made of the shit you're supposed to sweep off a proper road, but like I say I wanted a challenge. And I wondered if part of my aversion to gravel was just a lack of experience on it. People seem to get seriously hooked on it, really enjoy getting out on these gravel roads.

So the Pony Express Gravel Dash presented itself to me at the perfect time: when I was thinking of Dirty Kanza, but this one had several advantages. It was in September, so no need to wait a whole year (but still some lead time for training); it was free of charge (to the first 100 riders to get a postcard in), and Velo+ was even supporting a team and offered me a spot, so I'd have support. And at 120 miles, it's easier for me to get my mind around—I've done nearly that distance before, although it was on pavement.

It's coming up here in two weeks, and while I've worked on riding distances and with greater intensity, I haven't spent nearly as much time on gravel roads as I felt like I should have. One thing and another seemed to thwart my efforts, and then I spent two long training rides on the Prairie Spirit Trail, which is sort of gravel-ish, but it's devoid of hills (trains don't climb hills) and the crushed rock is a far more predictable and rideable surface.

So today I got my bike on the car and took it out north of McClouth, KS. The terrain is similar to what's around Marysville, the glaciers definitely worked this part of Kansas over—if you think Kansas is flat I've got news for you.

I started with a little piece of minimum maintenance road, and it was actually the easiest riding of this outing. Old gravel, with grass growing up out of it, but well settled with no loose gravel piled up anywhere.

When I got on the 'maintained' gravel road, it got more difficult. The loose gravel tends to accumulate on the steeper slopes, which means it's tricky to control the bike going down steep hills (I fall with all the grace of a sack of hammers, so that's pretty nerve racking for me). Then on the climb that follows, when I hit the loose stuff my back wheel spins out and I wind up walking the bike up the hill.

To make things worse, I'm trying to maintain a 10 mph pace because they sweep the course of the event and if you can't make 10 mph you don't make the cut-off, don't get to finish. I know I can do the distance, could even make that pace on pavement, but walking a bike up a hill at 2 mph, even if you fly down the next side you've given up so much time on the climb it sucks your average down.

Then there's the farm dogs. Some of the people who live along these roads have this notion that big, scary dogs running loose is necessary for their protection. It's an idiotic notion, you're out in the middle of nowhere, so while help may be a long ways off, so is any real danger. I don't believe there are gangs of criminals staging random home invasions all over the countryside, and if they were they'd probably get their asses shot because the same people who let their dogs run free are also armed to the teeth as a rule.

I'd come prepared for dogs. Besides my usual pepper spray, I'd put several Milk Bones in my top-tube bag where I could reach them easily. I figured a Milk Bone can't blow back in my face like pepper spray, and throwing something at a dog is a pretty good way to get them to at least pause.

By the time I was five miles from the car I'd encountered five dogs. The last one didn't even bark, I was riding downhill in some fairly loose gravel, concentrating on staying upright when I felt his breath on the back of my leg and looked over my shoulder to see a very large brown dog. I snarled at him, largely out of a startle reflex, and I guess it was a convincing snarl because he did back off when that happened.

But I have some PTSD issues when it comes to getting chased by dogs (which I've related here in the past), and while I know that most dogs mean me no harm, it still causes a huge adrenaline dump for me.

I rode on a bit further and stopped to collect myself. A dog that doesn't bark is extra spooky to me because I figure if he's putting all his effort into the pursuit and none into barking, he probably actually means to attack. Maybe that's not true, and if he wanted to bite me, if he was close enough to huff on me he was close enough to bite. I started to continue on the ride and before I could go down another hill full of loose gravel, I realized something. I wasn't having any fun at all. I can't remember having less fun on a bike, ever, including riding hurt all the way home from Big Lake against epic headwinds.

I turned around and headed back to the car, which meant dealing with all five dogs again, but lord knows how many more waited had I continued on my way. I thought about just riding up and down that minimum maintenance stretch, but I was so disheartened I couldn't bring myself to do it, especially when I saw that thanks to all those walk-up-hills I'd only averaged 7.5 mph.

I haven't decided if I'm going to drop out of the Pony Express Gravel Dash or not. Vincent says he didn't get chased by any dogs on Dirty Kanza, and maybe with a hundred riders ahead of me to wear them out they wouldn't be as much of an issue. Also if I can find some riders I can ride with there's the safety in numbers thing. But a big part of me is feeling like the whole gravel grinding discipline is just a mistake for me. I don't do downhill mountain biking, I don't do trials riding, or bike polo, there's lots of stuff on bikes that doesn't seem to be for me. Maybe I'm a city cyclist at heart, more comfortable in traffic than in the boondocks. There's lots of challenges to be had riding on pavement in places where every mile doesn't feature a run-in with some hillbilly's dog.

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