I love biking, but I hate exercise. I’m 41 and not getting any younger. And in December, I was at my trough of fitness. I needed a goal large enough to scare me into training. A goal I couldn’t complete without serious exercise and some discipline. Completing the Almanzo 100 was that goal.
I had been inspired by the 2012 short film. My friend John Hoch had encouraged me, saying ‘you can certainly do it’ and ‘it’s not as hard as the film makes it out to be’. He was right on the first point. I suspect stretching the truth on the second was a way of promoting the first. For the record - the race IS as hard as the film makes it out to be. Perhaps harder. But it is even more thrilling, fun, mind-expanding, adventurous and satisfying than any film could portray.
For the un-initiated, the Almanzo is an unsupported, 100-mile gravel road race through the country surrounding Spring Valley, Minnesota. Let’s review those points.
Unsupported means you are supposed to carry whatever you need for the ride on the bike and you can’t get outside help except for in the town of Preston at mile 40. This isn’t a metro classic - with a snack and beverage tent every 7 - 10 miles. You can buy what you want or connect with a supporter in Preston, but outside of that - you are on your own, and it’s water at the State Park at mile 68, the country store on the other side of the park, or the kindness of strangers and their spigots along the way.
Gravel, of all kinds. While you can expect some amount of compacted, fine-grained surfaces, there’s plenty of loose stuff to ride over. Find the tire tracks and ride in the most compacted part of the road. If there is one. This year there were two freshly chipped sections miles in length each, where several inches of loose large pebbles meant the best groove was in the tamped grass at the edge of the road. Get ready to ride in a four-inch-wide track.
Spring Valley is in the driftless region. Meaning it’s one of the few areas in Minnesota not leveled smooth by glaciers. Meaning the course is hilly with roughly 7,000 feet of overall elevation change. In short - a very challenging fitness goal.
I had convinced my friend David to come down for emergency support, to take photos and video, and just enjoy the spectacle of the whole thing. We drove down early Saturday morning, found ample parking at one of the designated lots, and quickly saddled up.
(c) David Vessel
(c) Craig Lindner
Even though it was minutes before announcements, most riders were milling about and I was able to move towards the front of the pack. Or herd, which is what almost 1000 riders feels like.
Chris Skogen, race organizer, did announcements and we sang happy birthday to his son. The event is a true labor of love and a testament to the amazing thing that is created when one guy, his family, his race sponsors, and gobs of volunteers perfectly craft every element, right down to the almanzo-logo-wax-sealed race packet. Soon we were off…
(c) Craig Lindner
The first 40 miles were exhilarating. It’s cool out, the course packed with thousands of dollars of beautiful metal propelled by giddy humans, and some of the route’s most beautiful sections.
(c) Craig Lindner
I ran into several friends and was most pleased to shout down buddy Greg as he blazed by. Greg is a classic - vintage coral steel road bike, no fancy bike clothes (he sunburned his lower back because his loose t-shirt flapped up throughout the race), no bike gloves (‘I just whirl my arms around every 5 minutes to beat back the nerve damage’). A guy who uses a free beer stop to wait for his friends to catch up. In short he looks like the guy you think is never going to make it yet he crushed his first Almanzo in 8 hours 15 mins.
(c) David Vessel
I rode those first 40 miles a little too fast but arrived at Preston pleased. Fast because my distance training taught me that if I rode a more sustainable pace I could go longer with less breaks. I loaded up on water, grabbed my inhaler (which turned out to be extremely fortuitous) but overstayed.
The next ten miles were tough. I hit the first section of several miles of deep, loose, fresh gravel. I learned that long breaks completely wiped my ability to turn the cranks. And my chest-cold cough from the previous week returned.
There was a period where I could only keep from uncontrollable coughing by not breathing hard. Yeah, in a bike race. Breath control… it was all very zen, and slow going. But food the inhaler and perseverance and turning the cranks were restorative. I gave up on time goals and focused just on finishing.
By the time I came across David at mile 51, I was starting to feel better and wasn’t about to quit. Others weren’t so lucky - in the time I took to say hello and say I was going on, two riders called it quits and others asked for pavement directions back to town. David ended up ferrying 4 riders back in two trips from that spot - including picking up one of the cramping pavement riders.
I learned that long stops were killers, and that I could come back from the long stop but it took me almost 10 miles. A fact I proved again after sitting too long at the State Park around Mile 68. I learned that slow perseverance could get me through the tired coughing, and that second, third and fourth winds were possible. I also learned that the 8 or so miles after the park are brutal, starting with a big climb on pavement that ends with another big climb on gravel.
But eventually it flattens out, and the rider who quipped that there were only two more hills to go was actually telling the truth. I greatly enjoyed the last 20 - 25 miles of the ride (well, except those two hills).
(c) David Vessel
The karma of rescuing downed riders was repaid at the end. Opening and closing and dragging bikes out of the van resulted in my black backpack being left somewhere. The back hatch had even opened on some country road, and we couldn’t be sure if it was left in a parking lot, mile 51, or along that country road. Over $350 of spare equipment, glasses and clothing - gone. We did some searching of our own after notifying volunteers, and a short while later I had a text saying the pack was turned in at the finish.
Needless to say I was elated and did the only appropriate thing besides thanking Annie and volunteers profusely - I grabbed the cash I had packed for emergencies on the bike and gave it all as a donation. Fitting that so fine an event would not be marred by losing a bag because the fine people of Spring Valley and other riders look after each other. I had an amazing experience and can’t wait to do it again.
For the technical-bike minded, I will try to follow up with a post on equipment and training, what worked, what I used, lessons learned. I also have to give credit to Chris Tassava and Luke Francl - who provided encouragement and lots of practical advice.
It has been a long week of travel (three locations, 4 hotels in 5 nights). UK business development offsite, presenting to clients… with each night capped off by emails and work until 1 or 2. It’s not fun when your coworkers are all hard at work when you want to be in bed, but it is fantastically rewarding.
Business is still personal, and the value of communication is gold. As always, I learn so much about the current opportunities on this trip, and get to excite peers and clients about our product directions.
Today ended in a crescendo - me presenting at the top of the Financial Times office to the wonderful John Ridding, CEO, and MB Christie, Online Director for FT.com. Absolute rock stars - John having lead the FT since 2006, and MB leading the FT to a rare successful exit from the Apple App store with an award-winning mobile web version of the FT.
Amazingly gracious and supportive, with insightful questions for and feedback on our initiative.
I took the (first) night off, leaving 80 Strand - our headquarters around 6:30 after finishing calls to the states. 80 Strand is the middle building in this three lit buildings picture of this post.
Nothing clears the head like a four hour walk. Covent Garden (where I snapped the street performer), chinatown, Soho, and back to Leicester Square where I caught the tube to Waterloo station across the Thames.
A long stroll down the Queen’s walk, and back to the hotel. Don’t worry - there were a few stops along the way - a burger from a street vendor, coffee, perhaps a glass of wine on the Thames.
London is an absolutely civilized city, alive in dry, seasonably warm evening with everyone out for Valentine’s day.