Gravel Metric: The Edge of a Razor

Modern life is safe, convenient, and controlled. HVAC, seatbelts, and the grocery store down the street rarely let one perish from misadventure as once was common. It’s a good thing, mostly. Humans are ingenious and creative creatures and if there’s a safer, easier way of doing something, that’s the way it’ll be done. Except when it comes to racing bicycles.

Bicycle races, amateur and professional, are always edging higher on an upward slope of difficulty. Nearly every year, a never-raced tract of cobbles is unveiled for Paris-Roubaix or a dirt access road for a mountain power line is turned into the highlight of a Giro d’Italia climber’s delight.

Sometimes the efforts seem sadistic, but more often in the amateur realm, they beg of being occasions to ride the razor edge between life and death. Our conveniences may keep us safe and allow us long lives, but is that long life lived well if one hasn’t come close to dying of misadventure? Apparently, in the cycling world, the answer would be a resounding no. We seek authenticity to give our lives meaning and to generate memories. No one has a fond memory of the Friday morning staff meeting. No one remembers the errand-running and lawn-mowing. Memories though, created by peril, either induced accidentally or intentionally, are the ones told to the grandkids with as many embellishments as necessary.

Recently, some Tenspeed Heroes rode the razor’s edge at the Gravel Metric in DeKalb, Illinois. Hosted by North Central Cyclery, the event promised some 63 bumpy, gravelly, muddy miles out in the fertile farmland an hour’s drive from Chicago. The recommended bike was a cyclocross machine with filetread tires. Todd Hero disregarded that advice and brought along his Look 585 with Campagnolo Chorus. This participant and Isaiah Hero both dusted off the cyclocross bikes: I on my aging, dented Voodoo Limba and Isaiah on his trusty Louis Garneau.

Prior to the start of the race (we’ll call it a race, not a “ride” to lend its participants some self-respect), it was shenanigans and posturing in the North Central Cyclery parking lot. Adjustments to apparel and equipment were made. I found myself in dire need of a new saddlebag, so I bought one at a clearance price from the NCC sale bin; a lovely dusty-pink bag that clashed wonderfully with my Voodoo’s teal green paint scheme.

Shortly after nine, the 120-rider strong posse headed out onto the open road, led out in a neutral roll. At the three mile point, right about where the gravel began, the gates were flung open and the race was effectively on. As is standard in racing, the speeds increased to an excruciating pace, forced-on by local Cat. 1 studs such as Brian Conant. I held on for a few minutes, but eventually the mental gauge that swings between “This Is Fun” and “I Hate This” started edging toward the latter. I fell off the back of the pack of ten riders, looked back, and saw only a few other cyclists in sight.

At this point, all sensations indicated that this was just your standard hard romp in the dirt. Well, except for the thick, low band of clouds to the south that the weatherman said would be pregnant with swirling updrafts, angry electrons, and lots and lots of precipitation. Those looming clouds came closer, and our trajectory had us heading right to the heart of the mass. I turned to my riding companions and said, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll only be a drizzle.” Two miles down the road, not sixteen miles into the race, raindrops the size of pennies starting falling. Then, maybe a minute later, it was drops the size of quarters, stinging and cold, and only coming down faster.

Coming up to the second checkpoint, at the end of what was usually a dirt road, I could see the front pack walking. Why was that? With the rain, the dirt had become deep mud and riding was impossible. Off the bike, we trudged through the slop, sliding along, and grunting. The walking was hard work; each footstep harder than the one before due to accumulations of mud on the shoes and lower legs. Stumbling forward, I imagined myself a Doughboy of WWI experiencing trench warfare on the active front.

After nearly twenty minutes of toil it was back to the open road. A shake of the bike and pounds of mud fell off, and back on I got toward the south. A mile further down the road, the tarmac ended and became mud, deeply rutted by tractor tires and erosion. Thank goodness I have some semblance of bike handling ability due to my years racing cyclocross and MTB, so I could ride most of that section, where some couldn’t. Down a hill and through a rapidly-rising river, normally a trickle, and back up onto the open road of cinders and gravel.

To the third checkpoint, an out-and-back jaunt, I rode through water ankle deep on the way out, and up to my shin on the return trip. At the checkpoint, I was informed I was in 5th place. “How could that be? Did I cut the course? Did the others get lost?” I asked no further questions, chugged a Coca-Cola, and continued on.

At this period of the event, the true extent of the peril I was exposed to was brought to full bear. The storm was in full-swing at this point and lightning was crashing steadily all around. One blast, a mile away. Another strike to a nearby barn, a quarter-mile away. Occasionally, I was the highest point on the horizon and I hunkered low on the drops to present the smallest target. In my tired delirium, I imagined I was being strafed by fighters –just me on my bike with a dispatch to deliver across the pockmarked fields. In actuality, I was a foolhardy cyclist who could have sought cover or refuge in a barn or under some trees. Instead, I carried on like what I was doing was actually important, like Pheidippides in the first Marathon. I suckered myself by the promise of 5th place and bragging rights.

With one mile left, I was back in DeKalb and had been finally caught by a small group of four. I caught on, grateful for the company after having been riding solo for 40 miles, but I also knew that I was vulnerable. The time alone had taken its toll. To the finish sprint I had nothing left and came in 7th….beat by my friends and teammates.

While the experience ranks as one of the best times ever on the bike, I wonder was it worth it? Exposure to peril is a risk that cyclists accept. Downhill mountain bikers accept that they’ll probably break a rib in a spill; road cyclists accept the dangers of passing cars and deer bounding out of the woods. Life is a series of near misses and the bike introduces those risks in spades.

But taking chances are why we sprint for a pair of socks or go touring across the desert with only a few jugs of water to ward off death. The bike is a remedy for the safe life, the easy life. And with events such as the Gravel Metric, just the act of participating is cure enough for time spent at a desk under fluorescents.

Photographs courtesy of Jason “Gnat” Boucher of Gnat Likes and Salsa Cycles -The only sole brave enough to bring a camera on this ride. 
Story by Robert Zach Thomas.