“At about 3 am this morning I felt the blood flowing in my toes again.” – Dan Libman, Frostbite 40 participant
It’s the last weekend of February. Mother Nature seems to have a mild case of ADHD. There’s snow, freezing rain, a day or two with copious sun and temps in the 50’s, then brutal wind. It goes around and around. She is a fickle being and I often wonder if she’s looking down on us cyclists laughing her butt off. To quote the musician Doug Martsch, “Mother Nature’s disposition … she don’t mind she don’t care.” Well, maybe she cares a little. She did throw us all a bone and gave us sunshine as well as temps which reached above freezing. On the other hand, for the second year in a row, she gave us gale force winds (20-30 mph with gusts close to 40 mph) and a beautiful thaw that turned the gravel roads into sludge and pop up “river” crossings.
Both last year and this year, my alarm rang at 5am … on a Saturday morning mind you. Oh sure, I wake each weekday at 4:30-5am, but I would really prefer cocooning in my bed for a couple more hours (especially when it’s below freezing out) on the weekends. But nooooooo … bikes must be attached to the car, food must be eaten, gallons of coffee must be consumed, layers of clothing must be arranged and a 1.5 hour drive must be had prior to the start.
This was the second year of Frostbite 40, created and run by Stu Garwick and the fine folks at Freeport Bicycle Company. Designed to be Illinois’ answer to CIRREM – held each early March in Cumming, Iowa – but according to Stu, something more inclusive and something people could navigate out of if need be. As many of you know, the season boundaries are now essentially non-existent in the cycling community. Long gone are the days when folks hung up their steeds for the winter (often five months here in the upper Midwest). Now it’s the norm to race cyclocross, fat bikes or gravel bikes all winter long and new winter events are popping up each year (Frostbite 40 being one of my favorites). Late February is really the new spring for us!
Six of us Madisonians gimped our bike-laden vehicles to Pecatonica this year. I say “gimped” because a few of us kept running into road closures due to the massive flooding which took place the entire week prior. Rivers and streams had jumped their banks all throughout lower Wisconsin and upper Illinois. This forced us to forge through one flooded road where we all chanted, “I think I can, I think we can” as the icy-water line grazed the underbody of the van. Needless to say, we took a different route home.
The doctor asked him what he was afraid of
Just what was he running from?
He said, “It’s not a fear of success, nor of closeness
But of going through life feeling numb”
That’s why I love the unknown
I love the unknown
He said he loves the unknown
– lyrics from Clem Snide
The start was similar to so many gravel events. We all huddled (130 of us!) in the American Legion building to keep warm, sign our lives away, enter the amazing raffle that raised $1,700 for the Freeport Police Department to purchase a bike, drink coffee and adjust layers. For the past two years, this marks the beginning of gravel season and is the first time I’ve seen my Illinois friends since late last fall. A soft murmur of how folks have been training over the winter (or not), and what adventures friends are planning flows throughout the room. The five-minute warning sounds and we all head out to line up to hear announcements. Most that show up to these events aren’t there to race, but a few of the fast kids pull up to the front to gun it right from the start. I, on my fat-bike (which a friend lovingly refers to as my “big girl bike”), settle in the back, knowing I don’t have a chance to keep a fiery pace out there. I’m quite content just getting through without incidents and having enough energy left over to curl a few beers.
At the start all is going well. Sure, we have a nasty headwind, but many of us are still all bunched up and full of energy. Five miles into the ride all we see in front of us is a large group of faster cyclists at a standstill. Ahead of them is what appears to be a flowing, semi-frozen river. Wait … there wasn’t supposed to be a water crossing. Wait … that water is deep! Ah yes, the joys of organizing a rural gravel ride. Things out here change within moments. A couple hours prior, that water crossing didn’t exist. Stu had driven the course in the morning and all was “normal.” But Mother Nature had her way and warmed the temps just enough to cause a flooded farm field to crest and jump the road. And for us, there was no way around it. At its shore, I waited, eyes bulging, as a cyclist crossed it ahead of me. I watched as the water swallowed their bottom bracket and rushed into the cyclist’s boots with each pedal stroke. This isn’t good, but I refused to turn back without at least trying. What’s the worst that could happen? I would go down in the water and would have to high tail it back five miles to change clothes. I could deal with that. I went on and I survived … wet feet and all.
Somehow, after the crossing, I got separated from the group I was riding with. I was too slow to catch them into the headwind and I didn’t want to wait around for the next group for fear of getting too chilled. It was there I ended up fighting the headwind solo for a good chunk of the ride. Not what I was hoping for at the time, but in hindsight, a wonderful training tool for both my body and mind. You see, I hate wind. I shut down in wind. But there is no shutting down on gravel farm roads. You have to get back and I wouldn’t even consider making a dreaded phone call unless I was bleeding out or my bike wasn’t rideable. Around mile 20, a PBR and two homemade cookies (thanks to Stu’s mom, Sue) reenergized me to get back to Pecatonica. More headwinds awaited, as well as gravel roads now resembling peanut butter with knife cuts through them from the faster skinny-tire riders. I laughed uncontrollably at the ridiculousness of me on my big girl bike out there and thought about how lucky I was to be in this situation.
I rolled into town, didn’t even bother looking at my time, found my way to a friend and downed a beer. A broad smile came back to my gritty, gravel-covered face. I was done. My body felt like it does after an 80-mile gravel ride (not a 40), but I was done and unbelievably happy to be with like-minded friends. And then this little thing grew inside of me. Nothing anyone else could see, but I felt stronger mentally for combatting so much of this tough ride on my own, and that, at least at the moment, was priceless.
It’s not easy to guess what physical challenges will make you stronger in the long run. All the little things along the journey usually mean so much more to me than the actual bragging rights or destination. Thankfully Stu Garwick and the Freeport Bicycle Company hold several events each year … each making me a better person for partaking in them. Check out their event page if you want to join in on the fun. You may even get to ride with his 11-year-old son who often leads the groups out and makes us all look weak in comparison.