Free Your Mind, And Your Legs Will Follow

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Trans Iowa V.10: The Story

Trans Iowa began a year ago after the last finish. The pain and hurt subsided and I knew that I would race the event again. All year I thought of how I wanted to approach the 2014 event and the 10th running of the race. I had a geared finish and a single speed finish under my belt. In my mind I never aimed to win Trans I thought I could either better my geared or single speed finish....or do something entirely different. 

Years ago, before I ever thought about racing Trans Iowa I thought that just finishing TI would be torture and a nearly impossible task. My best friend Ari had very slowly slipped the race into my brain around 2009-2010 and soon it turned to a disease. In 2012 I finished on a geared was hard. Very hard. But, I prepared and prepared....and prepared some more, and I completed the beast, in a year of some very bad conditions. After finishing the race on a geared bike I remember telling Ari that they should take death row convicts and make them do the event on a fixed gear.....

I had made up my mind. I sent Guitar Ted a confirmation email that I would race the event fixed gear. At this point there was no turning back. I was committed. I was nervous, I was scared, I didn't know what I had just gotten myself into. I had never ridden a fixed gear century before....I was confident in my cycling abilities and my fixed gear riding. But, I knew the difficulties of the race. The horrible hills, the maddening winds, the grueling fresh gravel. And after months and months of pouring your heart and soul into one race it would ultimately come down to mother nature taking mercy on a single day late in April in order for racers to finish. 

The winter was terrible. Hands down the worst winter I can remember. But, the Slender Fungus got out. We supported each other's efforts and goals and we made sure to ride no matter what. I put a lot of miles riding my fat bike as a single speed this winter and when the weather warmed up I got about 1300 miles on the fixed gear set up and felt very confident with the bike. My 39-19 gearing was perfect as a single speed last year and helped me finish the race strong, so I consulted others on what to use for the fixed gear ratio. Both Ben Shockey (thanks for all your help Ben) and Ari told me to go one gear harder then on the single speed. So, I chose a 39-18 and the bike felt great in wind, on hills, and decent enough on flats. The hardest part was learning the downhills....

There were six of us attempting the race this year. The Blue Demon, Jakey, Agatha, Giggles, myself, and El Jefe. As spring came we road harder and harder and focused specifically on a Trans Iowa finish. Giggles had an even worse winter than we did in upstate NY and Ari had injured his ankle a few weeks from the race. But, never the less, Trans Iowa is more than just racing. It is getting together to enjoy the company of old and new friends alike. To share our training experiences, rekindle friendships, and enjoy time in the saddle together on the finest of gravel that Iowa has to offer.

So, Finally the day came....The spring had gone so fast and the race was already at our doorsteps. Thursday evening Giggles shows up to the bike shop and we make some final adjustments to his bike. We went out for dinner and had our traditional shot of Templeton Rye before calling it a night. It was so good to see him and hang with him again. Such great times! 

We loaded up the cars and met the rest of the Slender Fungus crew in Sycamore at Ari's old house.

The tension and anxiety finally melted from my body as I saw my friends. This was more of a get together than anything else. An occasion to celebrate our friendship and go on a long ride together for which we had be dreaming about for months.....we were all excited. 

On the way to Grinnell, Ari and I drove together and caught up on life and recent issues. We laughed and talked about the upcoming event. As we crossed a larger river in Illinois we saw a bald eagle flying over the road and I took that as a good luck token....maybe it was.

Arriving in Grinnell we instantly got out of the cars and greeted new riders we had never met along with old friends whom we were excited to reconnect with. Seeing Charlie and Jeremy from Duluth is always a treat, what fine gentlemen.

We unloaded the gear, gathered some things together, made some final decisions on what to wear the next day after meticulously checking the weather every 15 minutes. Around 3:30pm we headed over to the Grinnell steakhouse for the meat up and to hang out with even more friends. It was so amazing and exciting to see like-minded people from around the country (and world) gather in the heart of Iowa for an ultra endurance challenge. I checked in, set up the give-away stuff from Wheel Werks (thanks Bobo!), and grilled up a mighty tasty Birthday ribeye. I got to reconnect with a friend from TIV8 Scott McConnell. It was great to catch up and see Scott's positivity on TI and life in general.

Charlie, Jeremy, Giggles, and I shared a table and again questioned each other about gear choices and nutrition methods. It is funny how we KNOW what we are used to and what we need to do, but still ask others for advice. And guess what....its always good to do so because you never know what small bits and pieces you can pick up that might save your ass out on the road. Never stop learning.

 Mark called us in to get the meeting started and I set next to Bruce Gustafson with whom a mutual acquaintance had introduced us. Bruce was a rookie from California and very motivated to be at Trans Iowa. I wished him luck and the meeting began.....

We learned of the usual course stats, cut off times, convenience store stops etc. Most importantly we got to look at the cue sheets for the first time. We were heading east into the wind......

We stopped off at Wally World where Charlie Farrow was overthrown by technology to pick up some last minute supplies and then headed back to the room to finalize the bikes and get ready for bed. 

The alarm went off and I actually felt rested getting about 5 hours of solid sleep. I woke up and started eating and drinking as soon as I sat up out of bed. I know I needed to get calories into the body and also take a bathroom stop before heading out onto the road. 

We arrived around 3:40 am to the start where headlights and tail lights were already ablaze. The start is always so cool because you can feel the nervous energy. I saw my friend David and Derek and wished them a strong race. 

With car exhaust in our nostrils, Mark pulled away in the red pickup and we were rolling. My goal was to stay with a strong group in the morning and for sure make the cut off to the first check point and also get some miles in before the winds were going to pick up. The forecast had been calling for 25-30mph winds straight out of the east all day and night, followed by T-storms Saturday night into Sunday morning. 

I rolled with a strong group of Joe Fox, Joe Stiller, Joe Stephens, Cornbread, and several others. Just around 8 we rolled into CP1 and fueled up quickly before hitting the road. Again, I rolled out with Cornbread and another rider. Corey blocked the wind as we headed straight east. I rode with those guys as long as I could and then they dropped me. 

It is a weird sensation riding fixed with groups of people. I so badly wanted to maintain contact with every group I rode with, but constantly found myself spinning higher cadences and speeds then I wanted to. I would lose the groups on a downhill and then struggle to regain contact on an uphill. I knew it was important as possible to ride with a group as long as I could into the wind to try and save energy. 

Groups would come and go and I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably be spending a lot of time alone during this race.

After rolling into the second gas station we were bombarded by wind and rollers. It was one of the most demoralizing rides I had ever been on. If you zoom into the pictures above and below you will see tiny ant-like bicyclists on some massive hills surrounding North English.

I left the gas station by myself and fought the never ending wind alone. I had to walk several hills after losing too much momentum on the downhills from the wind/fixie combo. I think this helped me in the long run to give the knees a little break.

Again, groups would come and go and it was nice talking with different groups as we would ride for 5 miles or so and then they would keep riding past me. At one point MG gave me a bacon hand up that tasted so good. That bacon gave me a boost of energy like I have never had, thanks MG! 

The thought of calling the race occurred several times in the first 150 miles. The motivation was not there and the conditions were brutal. I was tired and just wanted to sleep. I never seriously considered the was just lingering in the back of my head. 

In the photo below I forced myself to change my attitude. I remembered that I was in the beauty of Iowa and this is what I had been training for for months. The thought of being the third rider to ever finish TI on a fixed gear fueled me beyond belief. I knew I couldn't stop.

"YES, we are having fun!!!!"

The miles continued and the legs still felt strong. The rolling hills never ended and I was actually smiling when I would get to the top of them saying "man, that was an amazing hill!"....I love Iowa. Mark put together an amazing route compiled of bits and pieces of the past 9 years of Trans Iowa. Fantastic terrain out there!

One of my biggest concerns was the B-roads during the race. Guitar Ted said that we would for sure be walking every B-Road. I knew that this would eat up precious time and energy. Surprisingly after walking half of the first b-road and riding the other half, the heavy winds had dried up all of them. They were all rideable!!!! It was a relief not to have wasted precious time walking the dirt roads. 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity I ended up at CP2 with MG and another rider. We were informed that there were 32 people in front of us. At this point I thought we would have a record finishing rate and there were lots of riders making a strong presence despite the hardships of the first 170 miles. 

I gathered my last set of cue sheets and made my way into the setting sun of the evening. It was so beautiful I had to pause to take a photo. Seemed that there were dark clouds forming on the western horizon....but I wasn't worried about that, I just wanted to get to the last convenience store before the night began. 

Once I made it to the last store I found a gang of riders sprawled out all over the parking lot and inside the store. Some riders were just heading back out, some calling it quits, and others just stocking up on goods. I had a couple pieces of pizza and chatted with some riders before seeing my friend Charlie roll in, followed by Chad, Jeremy, Scott, and Andrea. I was sad to hear that Jeremy and Andrea were calling it quits after a long day...but I understood. I asked Charlie if he wanted to ride but he told me to go on ahead. I was certain I would see him again. Just as I was leaving I saw my friends and fellow SF Jake and Agatha roll up. They were in great spirits and it was awesome to see that they had made it this far. I wished them well and hit the road.  

I flicked on my lights and rolled into the blackness by myself. I was used to riding alone at night. Unlike years before I was not afraid of being alone during the night this year. I am not fully sure why but I had a eerie confidence about the night this time. I knew the fixed gear ride would be solemn and embraced the fact that I had some peace and quiet around me. 

As I got further out of town the lightening began. It seemed to pick up intensity throughout the night and never let up. I was starting to get nervous.

I am a very good navigator but had forgot the benefits of riding in a group at night. More lights and more eyes. I had taken two wrong turns and gone an extra 10 miles off course then I needed to be. After the second time it happened I told myself " no more mistakes" and became more alert then I already was. I couldn't afford any more mistakes riding alone and having the wind pick up as it had been throughout the night. 

The lightening picked up its frequency and intensity even more. The wind did the same. I saw lightening in every direction and began to get a little bit scared. I stopped on the side of the road to take a break and put on some rain gear as some drizzle had started. Just then I saw lights heading my way. I was relieved to see my friend Chad along with two other riders followed by Charlie Farrow. What a treat....other humans. I had been pedaling alone for 110 miles. 

We refueled and were on our way. Chad and the two riders dropped us and Charlie and I fell into a casual single speed rhythm. We didn't talk a lot but kept each other in check. 

As the rain began to come down hard we decided to seek shelter in a locked barn. We crawled under a tight gap in the floor and rested as we heard 40 mph winds driving horizontal rain into the metal siding of the barn. We realized we were not alone and the barn was full of sleeping cows. It was a nice treat and we took a 20 minute nap. Charlie even made a nice bed out of hay to lay in. 

I heard voiced pass by the barn and thought it might be an angry farmer coming to chase us away. In fact it was Jake and Agatha passing by. I told Charlie it was time to go and we needed to get back on the bikes. Soon enough we were chasing their group. The storms were still all around us but the rain had resigned to a dull drizzle. As we hit the 7th B-road I saw flashing truck lights in the distance. I thought the race might be cancelled. Part of me was happy from I was worn out and exhausted from the day. 

In fact it was my good friends TJ and the Bonk King giving us reroute directions as a bridge had been out. They pointed us in the direction of another B-road and wished us good luck. I looked at Mike and asked him with all seriousness, "Do you think we can honestly make the time cut off??" I was delirious and unsure of everything, except that I needed to keep pedaling. A reality that had become all to real riding a fixed gear for 200+ miles. 

Charlie and I kept pushing on through the early hours of the morning. Eventually I found myself pulling away from him. I never said goodbye, I never thanked him for riding with me, I just selfishly pulled away....I felt guilty, but after all it was a race. Thank you Mr. Farrow for your excellent company. 

I eventually caught up to my friend Chad's group and then bridged up to Jake and Agatha's group. They were ecstatic to see me and I was beyond happy to see them. The sun came up and we were 80 miles away from finishing one of the hardest Trans Iowa races ever put on. Jake and Agatha were riding "slow and steady" and I was happy to ride on cruise control next to them. 

We eventually ran into the 1st place women's racer Sarah and her riding partner Robert Fry. They seemed to be tired and Jake and I alternated taking long pulls into the wind while the others took a break. One 9 mile section of headwind nearly crippled us mentally and emotionally but we had strength in numbers and made it through as a group. 

The rain came and went throughout the morning, but the hills and wind never left us. We made it to the final gas station where we fueled up quickly for the last time. The race had become a math equation and we were constantly crunching the numbers in our heads. The "slow and steady" approach had been working and we stayed hopeful of a finish. 

Finally, we finished the last section of headwinds and realized we only had a few B-roads left and then it was all tailwinds to the finish. Our nerves were shot from the day but we knew that we were going to make it. Sarah and Agatha decided it would be a great idea to roll in together as a group. Everyone agreed and we sat up and enjoyed a much needed tailwind into Grinnell. Minus the fresh gravel and hills it would've been a little nicer....but Guitar Ted is known for putting the hardest part of the race right before the finish. 

Four miles out of town I thought of hugging my friend Ari at the finish. Tears overwhelmed me and I began to cry. 

He started this whole experience for me. He has mentored me, taught me, and helped me get to where I am today. He has created a group of cyclists who are more family than they are friends. Agatha, Jake, and I rode next to each other and all said "This is for Ari". We are proud to have spent time getting to know this great man and even prouder to be part of his Slender Fungus. 

As we crossed the line together I saw him break down. I was overwhelmed and gave him the biggest hug that I could. 

Thank you my friend, for everything. You have no idea.....

We were on cloud 9. I hugged Mark and thanked him for an awesome race. I learned that not a lot of riders had finished and we had crossed the line with just 45 minutes left in the race. We completed 19 riders that finished of 104 that started. Our buddy Derek had taken 4th place tying with Troy Krause who was the first single speeder. I learned that I was 2nd place single speed and was shocked. Agatha and Sarah tied for first place female and we were all handed celebratory beers.

Words can't really describe this experience. It was one of the best rides and times of my life. A huge goal complete. Thanks to all of my Slender Fungus crew for making this race incredible this year: Mike Baggio, TJ, Gumby, Giggles, Jakey, Agatha, Derek, and Ari. Thanks to my friends and family for all of the support and love. Thanks to my boss Bob for sponsoring the race. Thanks to Beth for always believing in me. Thanks to Mark for going above and beyond for this event. Thanks to all of the sponsors, volunteers, friends at the barn, and friends I rode with during the day. You made this a really special year for me.


  1. Truly impressive. Gutsy effort. Nice job staying on top of training, executing the race and great write up, thanks for sharing.