Riding the dike road in the gorgeous Crex Meadows. Walter Rhein photo
Gravel grinding with Walter Rhein
After 70 miles of torrential downpour, we started considering the merits of human sacrifice. At that point, I was willing to try anything to help achieve more favorable circumstances. We’d been blaming Todd for the water all day since he was the one who checked the radar on his phone at 10 a.m. and claimed the storm would be “blowing past us.” Predictably, he was the one who started arguing against the merits of a blood offering.
“All I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s going to work.”
“That’s pretty ethnocentric of you Todd,” I replied, “I mean, ancient cultures used to sacrifice people to make the rain stop all the time.”
“They sacrificed people to make it rain! Not stop it!”
“Oh, now you’re some sort of expert all of a sudden?”
We’d just passed Siren, Wis., on our way back to St. Croix Falls. We were on the Gandy Dancer State trail, one of the most pristine silent trails in the whole universe. But the rainfall had made it tacky, and tough to push the wheels. Instead of a dime-sized area of contact, you had about four inches of trailing mud behind the low point of the tire. It was also difficult to draft because the force of the rear wheel threw up a spray of what looked like chocolate syrup. Only it wasn’t chocolate syrup, which would have been awesome. Instead it was thick, gritty mud with an unerring propensity for hitting you right in the eye.
The practical possibility of human sacrifice was not very likely for two reasons: 1. Todd had been the strongest rider for pretty much the whole day (until Kelly surged at the end and whipped us all). 2. I was in the midst of experiencing a power outage. Despite making the same effort as I had through the mud and grime and lakes of the previous 70 miles, my speed suddenly sunk to 5.9 mph and continued to steadily descend.
It’s at moments like these that you become very discouraged by basic math.
“Thirty miles to go at 5 miles per hour is going to take me. .. SIX HOURS!”
And that was assuming I could continue maintaining the torrid pace of 5!
“How can I be bonked? I just had a bacon cheeseburger, fries, a beer, and a shot of fireball. I should be ready to take on the world!”
“We aren’t going to leave you behind!”
What a kind sentiment, in light of the fact that I’d been considering sacrificing one of them. Then again … I’d clearly become the weakest …
“Um … if you don’t leave me behind, there’s no chance of you returning with your pick-up to come and get me!”
“Oh, okay,” they said, and strolled off. I strolled into the ditch and started munching on some Clif Shot Bloks while reflecting on what I’d learned.
As if wet, muddy gravel wasn’t challenging enough, let’s throw in some miles of sand barrens. Walter Rhein photo
Riding in the rain
We’ve all been caught in an unexpected spray throughout the years. You’re in the midst of a summer ride, a cloud catches you, washes you, then drifts off. In the summer sun, you’re dry again by the time you get home. Not so in a spring gravel ride. Spending a day under water on the bike is a learning experience.
The first drops had started within a minute of the event’s launch. No doubt the forecast of an “80% chance of rain” had driven more pragmatic – some might call them intelligent – souls to stay home. But I figured an 80% chance of rain equated to a 20% chance of sun. Plus, it was supposed to be 66 degrees, how can you fail to ride in that?
The first thing you learn about riding in the rain is that there’s no way to avoid getting drenched. Rain coats are worthless. If they’re impermeable enough to keep the external water off you, they reflect your body heat and soon you’re drenched with sweat. A coat that breathes is also going to let the water in. Todd’s Marmot rain coat seemed to be the most effective piece of outerwear anyone in our group possessed, but he admitted even that marvelous garment left him sweating. So the question becomes, how do you stay warm when wet?
The temperature was in our favor, as was the wind. In an unprecedented turn of events, we had a tailwind throughout the whole of a loop ride. At about 1 p.m., we turned around at the far point to head back and the wind shifted to stay in our favor. The downside of this was that the storm we’d been riding under shifted to continue on in our direction as well.
And they’re off … on the 100-mile Mammoth Gravel Classic. Kelly O’Day photo
Most of us who bike or ski or run are in possession of serious high-tech gear, but you rarely get the chance to truly test it. No matter how high-tech you go, it’s still difficult to find any material as good as wool. I had a Smartwool long sleeve shirt under my jersey, and although it was drenched, a wet wool shirt will still keep you warm. I had a wind jacket as well that I’d put on after stops, and then strip off when the furnace got going again.
The trick is only to keep moving.
I rolled another Clif Shot Blok out of the plastic wrapper and hoped to feel some strength return. Being soaking wet and exhausted in the middle of nowhere is the type of thing you worry about.
I squeezed my hand into a fist and watched as a rivulet of dirty water drizzled to the ground. I peeled the gloves off and stashed them in a pocket. I’d started the ride in bare legs, but at Mile 30 I’d put on my knee warmers and hadn’t taken them off since. This ride was going to go down as one of the few times I’d used every single article of clothing that I’d packed for the day.
Shot Bloks gone, I stood up and pushed the bike a bit. I could see Hwy. 35 through the trees, and though it was higher traffic than my preference, I decided to surrender from the grabby hands of the wet trail. I pushed my bike through a ditch and managed 7 mph on asphalt, then 10, then 15! The body can recover, it was a miracle!
This kit is black, not brown. Kelly O’Day photo
Twenty miles later, I stunningly met back up with Dan on the short patch where the Gandy crossed Hwy. 35.
“I left you a phone message,” he said, “I was a little concerned when you didn’t answer. The message was basically, ‘Don’t Die!’”
“Yeah, I feel better,” I said.
“Good, let’s go see if there’s any beer left in town!”
We got back to the finish and met up with Kelly and Todd.
“Hey,” they said, “you made it under your own power! That’s good, you were looking rough!”
“Just barely! Sorry about that sacrifice talk. The weather wasn’t your fault, Todd.”
Todd just gave me a confused look.
“Oh, maybe I never actually spoke it out loud,” I replied. “Forget I said anything.”
Riding in rain for 100 miles drenches you to the bone and exhausts you right to the spirit. But the sensation of rebirth when you put on dry clothing and fill up your belly is beyond the capacity of what money can purchase.
Water and mud everywhere for, from left, Dan, Walter, Todd and Kelly. Kelly O’Day photo
This year the Mammoth Gravel Classic fell on Easter weekend, so the theme of rebirth seems extra appropriate.
There’s no shortage of new lessons to be learned while riding your bicycle, and the friends you share the experience with are the ones you can rely on. These are the kind of lessons that have to be experienced rather than taught.