BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
There are two events each year I wouldn’t miss for anything: The Dairy Roubaix and what my friend calls the “underground cult ride,” – Ten Thousand. Both are located in one of my favorite places on the planet – the driftless area. While Dairy is in Wisconsin (fitting), Ten Thousand is in Illinois. Illinois … the land of what most think of as pancake flat and border-to-border cornfields; but let me tell you, there is a little surprise in the northwest corner. This area has hundreds of miles of gravel roads. Many of which have not one, but as many as seven 15 to 20-percent-grade hills. Gravel roads lined by dense woods chock full of deer, grouse, turkey, woodchucks and owls. Gravel roads leading you past lone oaks hundreds of years old and century-old farms galore. This place, simply put, is magic. This magic, however, is not easily earned if on two wheels. Those taking on even the shortest rides here usually go through a little discomfort (or a lot) but if prepared, the rewards are immense.
Ten Thousand has an amazing history, not unlike the farmhouses you pass on the ride. Started in 2014 by Chad Ament and Tobie Depauw of North Central Cyclery and Axletree (both sadly gone now), it was meant to not only bring gravel riders on some of the most scenic roads in Illinois, but also give flatlanders a heart attack. I, along with a close friend, Dan Hobson, were there for the inaugural event. I remember reading all the “warnings” put out by Chad on the event page and thinking, “What the hell am I getting myself into?” But as many of you know, I like hills and I have a triple chain ring on my gravel steed, so I wasn’t too worried. My only concern was route finding, since I always go by map and cue sheet and many of the roads out there aren’t marked. Finding substantial water also sat at the back of my mind because towns here are few and far between. Aside from not being able to find the “B” road that brings terror dreams to some (I learned to actually enjoy it over the years) right away, and having my cleats so caked with mud after the B road I couldn’t clip in for miles, I fell in love with this event instantly. You might not want to ask Dan how he feels about it, though.
Five years later and there’s only been one year I’ve actually missed the event. I did, thankfully, round up two friends that year to do it later in the season. So in a strange way, I’ve never really missed it. Over those five years, this event has seen many hands. When Chad moved to Colorado and Tobie to Madison, Dawn Piesch, Bailey Gene Newbrey and Stu Garwick (all who rode in other Axletree events and volunteered for them) took the reins. When The Gravel Metric died along with Axletree, these three were given the okay to keep Ten Thousand alive. And with Stu Garwick’s purchase of Freeport Bicycle Company, in Freeport, Illinois, the event found a new brick and mortar home last year.
You may read this and think the event is all warm fuzzies and cuddly bunnies for me. And if thinking “Damn, I better cut this short unless I want my friends to find me passed out in a ditch with my face down in a fetid pool of water” sounds like the kind of fun you want to have, then yes, believe in fuzzies and bunnies! Okay, I may be exaggerating a tad, but seriously, there were a lot of folks who called it quits on the course this year and most of the ones who had hoped to finish the long route (124 miles with over ten thousand feet of elevation gain) quickly changed their minds and opted instead for the 75 or 50 mile routes.
I was not one of those wise people. No, I had demons to slay and something to prove to myself, even if weatherpessimist.com said it was going to be 96 degrees with high humidity. At least I was wise enough to start two hours before the main rollout at 9:00 in hopes of cutting down on the baking sun. I may like heat, but I’m not a masochist. I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Several others rolled out not far behind me. I can’t speak for them, but all went really well for me the first 50 miles aside from my arms and legs resembling the killing fields, since swarms of gnats were drowning in my toxic combo of sweat and sunscreen.
I rolled into my first stop, the town of Elizabeth, and downed two 32-ounce jugs of Powerade. This was already after consuming two water bottles and part of my Camelbak bladder. I still didn’t have to go to the bathroom and I started to think “oh-oh,” this isn’t good. I also didn’t want to eat anything – just the thought of my peanut butter bagels and energy bars made me want to hurl … oh-oh again! This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo and I knew my system was a bit wonky already, yet I rode on since I still “felt” good. I headed south towards Mt. Carroll, my next place to refuel and the furthest spot away from my car. I’m guessing about eight miles from it, I decided to pull the plug and start heading back. I could only take in half a sandwich and anything sweet repulsed me. A close friend after the ride reminded me that I could have found solace and reprieve with air conditioning and cold beverages (vs. 96-degree fluid from my bottles) if I had just kept going. I still think I made the right decision. I remember stopping at that final crossroad and thinking “I don’t want to have to call someone to come and pick me up … if I turn around now, I can make it back.” I also thought “Errrr… I’m SO CLOSE!”
This ride is epic and I’m here to do epic things … keep going. Logic somehow won out. Miles later I joined up with the 75-mile route and for the first time all day, I got to talk with other riders. Some of whom were having a blast and taking the pace easy (the racers had long gone through) and some of whom were stopping at every pocket of shade to recover despite the swarms of gnats. At that point I was so thankful I don’t use air conditioning at home so I had already acclimated a little to the heat.
The final miles ticked by slowly. I made a couple wrong turns which added about two miles at the end. I walked my bike up part of a hill (the only hill I walked up) that looked like a complete washout, I downed another gallon of cold water at the infamous Slurp & Burp and I made my sorry-looking self back to the shop … where there was a cold beer waiting for me … like magic. More importantly, my demons, for the first time in weeks were quiet and my self-doubt was as well. I briefly let my 111.7 miles taunt me, thinking I could have finished all 124, and then I just let myself relax into the thought I had done something that pushed so many of my boundaries. It wasn’t the miles … it was the quiet inside those miles. It wasn’t the hills … it was the view from atop those hills. I remember sitting there, on the stoop of the shop as others rolled in, and thinking about the quote from Shakespeare: Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
Thank you, Stu, Comrade Cycles and of course Chad Ament for giving me the opportunity to slay my demons. I will be back next year, if not before.
The numbers for 2018: 130 riders, 15 of which were women (Stu wants to see more out there next year!).
Route options: 124/75/50 miles.
Elevation gain: Over 10,000 feet of climbing for the 124-mile course.
Finishers: Eight riders finished the 124-mile course.