Red River Riot

The Plan?

Sometimes the best trips are the ones that we didn’t plan on making. So what happens when you make a last minute decision on Thursday night to get out of town on Friday? TEXAS happens!

I hastily packed my overnight bag, cycling kit, picked up my new gravel bike and a friend after work on Good Friday and we headed out. Three and ½ hours on what some refer to as the best thing to ever come out of Oklahoma (I-35 South) and we arrived at our gravel port of call.

The Place:

Muenster City Limit

Muenster City Limit

Muenster is a predominately German Catholic community just west of Gainesville in the scenic Red River area of north central Texas.  The city is very rightfully proud of it’s German heritage and Texas hospitality and the business directory on Main Street reads like a Rhineland phonebook.

Unfortunately, we arrived just a couple weeks shy of the famous Muenster German Fest. This year’s festivities will be crowned with a performance by Grand Old Opry member John Conlee! #rosecoloredglasses

I guess David Hasselhoff was previously engaged?

The Course:

When Red Dirt Goes Wrong - Okla. Land Run 2015

When Red Dirt Goes Wrong – Okla. Land Run 2015

Oklahoma “gravel” tends to be muddy as it is choked full of our trademark flour fine “red dirt” (you know, the same stuff we liberally exported as far as New York City and Washington, D.C. during the Dust Bowl era). Don’t get me wrong, every gravel road has it’s own personality to love, and Oklahoma is home.

The gravel in north central Texas is hard, white, limestone – the stuff that smooth, fast, and dusty roads are made of. The Red River area is incredibly scenic in April. The ride was characterized by winding and very rolling terrain through lush green ranch land. Redbud trees are in full bloom in April and punctuate this verdant green canvas with deep magenta and pink. Indian paint brush lines the shoulders of the road and, in places, erupts into the surrounding fields like a prairie fire.

By Oklahoma standards, this course was moderately hilly. However, painful climbs were rewarded by magnificent hilltop vistas and super fast descents through cross timber hollows. The ride was broken up into three separate loops that brought you back to the starting point, so bailing out was an option at 32 or 75 miles. I had hoped to do the entire 130 mile ride, but the late ride start (8:40 am) and a long drive ahead back to Tulsa made this choice a non-starter. Plus calling it at 75 miles ensured there was still some BBQ and beer back at the barn for us!

Windmill Hill

Windmill Hill

The crowning jewel of the course is Windmill Hill. This short but steep climb came up on me fast around mile 20 and looked very deceptive. My first clue that something was wrong as I closed in on the climb was the large number of seemingly capable riders dismounting and walking. As I was sizing all of this up, a rather compact female rider rushed by me to assault the hill with all the momentum she could bring. I followed her lead and began to light my pack of matches one at a time. The first third of the climb was certainly manageable with 8 to 9% grades and well compacted gravel, but this quickly increased to a constant plus 10% and I believe there were significant “kickers” on the remainder of this short climb that approached 20% grade. I stood up and wheels began to slip. I sat down and couldn’t keep revs up on pedals. I tried to tack, and walkers got in the way… I was starting to wonder if I would make it as I sat down as forward as I could on the seat and just mashed the pedals to the top. Yes, we call this fun (at least after it’s all over)!

Thank you Spinistry for putting together such a well organized event on such a beautiful course. I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could! What a great inaugural outing for me in the Lone Star State!

Texas Gravel Rocks!

Texas Gravel Rocks!

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Colorado Contact

coloradoI am not particularly a fan of labeling my cycling adventures as “epic”, but sometimes, if the shoe fits, you just have to put it on and ride with it. All I can say about the inaugural “Old Man Winter Blues Bike Rally” is EPIC, EPIC, and EPIC! But before we go there, let’s go back a space. Cycling, and particularly gravel cycling is a community of friends, and it’s good to have friends in AWESOME places. In fact, I will submit that EVERYONE should have a Colorado contact. I, being particularly blessed, have two – and they both happen to be amazing riders and friends. Thank you Regina and Karen for your hospitality, it was so amazing to share this ride with you!

Big Dave at the Dino X-ing

Big Dave at the Dino X-ing

No road trip would be complete without a super cool sidekick, however, so I enlisted the support of one bad ass rider who is known as “Big Dave” to those of us who know and love him (I suspect other people who do not know him probably call him “Big Dave” too). Last Friday morning I picked up David in Stillwater, Okla., we loaded up his brand new Surly build, and we headed West across the plains of Oklahoma to find some mountains to climb. On a rare and extremely warm day in February we survived the seemingly endless journey across the panhandle of Oklahoma with caffeine, gas station sandwiches, and a mix tape with great tunes, albeit REALLY bad segues. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the song stylings of Rammstein and Gwen Stefani as much as the next gal; I just don’t often get the itch to play them back to back. A few gratuitous photo-ops and a few minor route revisions and we finally reached colorful Colorado!

Big Dave and I ready to get our Old Man Winter Blues on!

Big Dave and I ready to get our Old Man Winter Blues on!

The ride, which began and ended at the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado, was as challenging as it was beautiful! The course, featured 58 miles of mixed terrain, which included a fair amount of pavement, a lot of super smooth gravel, and about three miles of single-track trail that was mostly covered in snow and ice. Add in nearly 5,000 feet of climb (and descent) through breathtaking canyons and this ride was one for the ages. Old Man Winter didn’t make an appearance this year, but Old Man Wind certainly made a strong showing. While I enjoyed sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s, I could have managed without 20 mile per hour sustained west winds. Gusts in excess of 40 through slot canyons made climbing a living Hell on Earth while descending was sketchy at best and, unfortunately, treacherous for some riders who were caught off guard at inopportune moments.

View from Rowena Trail

View from Rowena Trail

It has been a long time since I have done sustained climbing like this, and I have never done so on my gravel bike. I definitely could have used few more low gears through the 2,000 feet of ascent through Lefthand Canyon, and my legs were like Jello when we made the turn onto the single-track Rowena Trail.

Fat Bikes are Unstoppable

Fat Bikes are Unstoppable

Bike selections were everything on this course and it was hands down the most eclectic field I have ever seen. Road bikes, 29ers, cyclocross rigs, and fat tires shared the road that day as all of us plotted how to attack a course that threw a little bit of everything at us. For three miles, we all shared a breathtaking journey along a single-track jewel that wound across an icy mountain ridge.

Riding a Dry Patch on Rowena

Riding a Dry Patch on Rowena

The fat bikes and mountain bikes seemed to be winning the day on that pass as they rode effortlessly. The roadies looked lost as the trudged through the snow carrying their now useless steeds. A few cyclocross riders managed to ride some of the trail and I admit, I got braver (or rather the fear of falling began to outweigh the pain of walking) as time went on. In the end, we all persevered and continued on to a sweet descent, and it seemed like the worst was behind us. It wasn’t…

Karen Makes Podium!

Karen Makes Podium!

For those of us who didn’t study the course carefully, we were slapped hard with yet another serious long climb. This time we headed uphill directly into the wind for over a mile of paved road with sustained climbing in excess of 10 percent grade. I cramped horribly as I stood up in my saddle to attack this cruel challenge and with the most logical rationalization that I could muster, I determined it was in my best interest to walk… I have NEVER walked a hill and felt almost ashamed in doing so. As riders passed and asked if I was OK, my humiliation grew. Fortunately, my rationalization was actually sound, and I found some (barely) revived legs to motor home over the last 20 miles. I gained all of the ground I lost, and more – and ultimately I had reasonably strong showing. Still, this ride humbled me in a way that I have never felt before.

Regina and I Enjoying Some Well Deserved Oskar Blues

Regina and I Enjoying Some Well Deserved Oskar Blues

I have ridden over three times as long and climbed more than three times as much and never, EVER, considered giving up. The thought of calling SAG was real on this course, and I feel just a little lucky that I even finished. Perhaps it was the knowledge that hot food and some amazing craft beer were only a few miles up the road. All I can say is that for an inaugural event, Oskar Blues really did it up right! Well played Colorado, well played… This ride truly was EPIC!  Next mission:  Time to make a few contacts in Wyoming:)

http://ridinggravel.com/event/rattlesnake-rally-gravel-grinder/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Random Thoughts on Solo Exploration

A Few Thoughts on Solo Exploration

I like to ride alone. I like to ride in remote places. Today was no exception, as I was scouting out a new (well new to me) 50 mile loop in Osage County, Okla. The gravel is fast, the climbs are challenging, and descents are rewarding. The absolute best part about Osage County, is that you are not riding section line roads. This is not your typical Oklahoma “Etch a Sketch” route…

Osage County, Okla. 50 Mile Gravel Route

Osage County, Okla. 50 Mile Gravel Route

I don’t think anyone should be afraid to venture off alone for 20, 50, or 100 miles. But, if you are an adventurous soul like I am, you should probably be prepared. Here a few things I have learned along the way…

  1. Does someone know where you are?

Let someone know where you are and when you are expected back; if you can use “live track” apps, even better… If you can’t and you have phone service, it’s not a bad idea to update a friend with a text every now and then on a long ride. Tell them where you are, where you are headed, and your ETA.

  1. Know basic mechanical stuff!!
Near Avant, Okla.

Near Avant, Okla.

Is your bike in good mechanical condition? Can you fix a flat? Or worse, can you boot a tire if it gets torn? Do you have basic tools and do you know how to use them? A chain tool and a spare derailleur hanger are never bad things to carry and could save you from hitchhiking (which I did a few weeks back…)

 

  1. Bring extra stuff!!!
Flooded Timber on North End of Skaitook Lake

Flooded Timber on North End of Skaitook Lake

You may think you will be gone 2, 3, 4 hours – but a simple issue like a mechanical could put you way behind in a hurry. I suggest that you carry extra food, water, batteries, phone charger, lights, and even a warm change of clothes if it looks like it will be cold or wet. Dry bags are good to have, but zip lock goes a long way too.

  1. Know your route and have a bailout plan.

pumpingIf you are running woefully behind schedule or if the roads deteriorate, you should know the route well. Where can you cut out to a highway if necessary? How can you shorten the route up if it is getting dark? Who will come and pick you up if you are unable to advance? It’s helpful to have a good sense of direction and a Garmin is great, but a compass is smart thing to carry. Know what direction you are heading based on your shadow, if possible…

  1. Ride smart!

Bombing a hill may be great in Land Run #unlearnpavement, but not so much if you are all alone in BFE,

Prairie View near Avant, Okla.

Prairie View near Avant, Okla.

it’s probably not a good idea to see if you can catch air coming out of a water gap. Know your skill level and stay WELL WITHIN it. I tend to be a MUCH different rider when I am by myself than I am with a group. I am riding to complete, not compete. To me, these are fun rides of exploration – keep your camera close, sit back, go easy, and ENJOY the solitudeJ

*Riding solo isn’t for everyone. But if you are the adventurous type, you never know what you might find on a back country road. Be SMART, Be SAFE, and Be CONFIDENT!

 

 

 

 

The Strongest Woman I Know

strongest womanIt’s Saturday and race day is finally here. As I pull my team jersey off the hanger I look at the inscription on the inside of the collar. It says “I am the strongest woman I know”. Of course I am prepared, and hoping for a strong showing today, but as I ponder this affirmation, I know it isn’t really true.

mom2

The strongest woman I knew stood squarely on two feet and bravely fought an impossibly resourceful and relentless enemy for five years. The strongest woman I knew smiled at every triumph and gritted through every tribulation and NEVER, EVER gave up. The strongest woman I knew, my mom, lost her life to metastatic cancer almost five years ago and I miss her every single day.

I recall my own feelings of hopelessness and frustration as I watched a heartless disease slowly, methodically, and completely consume the vitality and mobility of the strongest woman that I knew. Cancer never consumed or defeated her spirit, however. Through nothing short of a living Hell on Earth, my mother never lost hope, faith, humility, or compassion. Even when I cried, she was strong for both of us.

It was in fact during my mom’s struggle with cancer that I began riding my bicycle. A friend suggested that I do the things I enjoyed most as a child to find temporary respite from the painful reality staring me in the face. And so I got on the 10-speed that my mom bought me when I was 16 years old and I rode.  At first I could only go 10 miles, then 20, then 50. One summer I raised money and rode 100 kilometers for a research cancer hospital. Roswell Park Cancer Institute took a chance on Mom and performed “experimental” surgery that probably gave her two more years to fight.

My 1984 Univega Viva Touring

My 1984 Univega Viva Touring

As my heartache grew, I rode more often, much further, and always alone (riding alone, often in remote areas, is still a bad habit that I happily practice today).  I don’t recall ever feeling strong during these rides. I just remember that it didn’t hurt as much when I pedaled. In a way I felt guilty, as if I had ran away for an hour, an afternoon, a day.  I wished somehow that I could bottle up all the fresh air and sunshine that I soaked in and bring it home to her.  But she always made me feel better when I checked in either by phone or at her bedside. “Mom?”, “Yes child…”, “I love you…”, “I love you too…” I would give up cycling in a heartbeat to spend one more day with the strongest woman i knew.

So, putting the bike in perspective…

When we think about strength on the bike, we throw out words like “power” and “speed”. We compare our accomplishments with one another, and even earn bragging rights through social media. “Wow, Jaime – you really lit up some Strava segments today!”, “Thanks!”

Personally, I think social media can be damaging to new cyclists. I often hear new (or just less speedy) cyclists quickly dismiss their own accomplishments when they compare themselves to other more seasoned riders. I hear things like “You wouldn’t want to ride with me Jaime, I would bore you.” or “I’m getting there, maybe in a few years I will be able to keep up with you.” These things make me both mad and sad, because I feel like I am missing out on great rides with really cool people who don’t feel “strong” enough to cycle with me. Seriously?!?

Red Dirt Divas, Ingalls, OK

Red Dirt Divas, Ingalls, OK

When I look at cyclists, I estimate their strength in terms of “commitment”, “endurance”, “perseverance”, “tenacity”.  Sure, I admire speed and agility, but that isn’t true strength. Perhaps the true strength of cycling, or any activity you pursue in life is best measured in the satisfaction you derive from it. Quite simply, are you having fun? And equally important, are you helping to share your passion with others who want to learn?

 

In context, “strength” in cycling is not important. Strength in REAL life is what truly matters and this is all about character. It is about the respect we give, both to ourselves and others. Strength is found in acceptance, compassion, empathy, and love. Real strength is measured in our deeds; it is not reflected in wattage, speed, or distance.

Remember, the strongest woman that I knew didn’t ride a bicycle.

A Year of Gravel

Is it really almost 2015?  People that are closest to me know that a whirlwind of change has surrounded me in the last four years and 2014 has been no exception. My life has been so gently guided this year by a collection of beautiful and simple experiences, some of the best of which happened on gravel roads.

August, Osage County

August, Osage County

Last Christmas, a girlfriend of mine in Washington, D.C. told me about this crazy ride in Kansas that a friend of hers rode.  She called the event a “Dirty Kon-za” or some such thing.  Yes, she pronounces it “con-za”, and somehow it always makes me giggle like a teenager whenever she says it. Anyway, for my non-rider friends, the Dirty Kanza (actually pronounced “can-za”), or DK, is the self-described World’s premier gravel bicycling experience.  It is a gravel road odyssey that traverses over 200 miles through the heart of the Flint Hills in south-central Kansas. It is uncluttered, expansive, and unassumingly beautiful country (picture big skies “Dances with Wolves” prairie scenery throughout the entire course). Prior to this conversation, I had never heard of a “gravel grinder” but, being the non-adventurous soul that I am ;), I knew this had my name written all over it.  I promptly signed up for the DK-Lite, which is a 110 mile preview of the DK 200.

Land Run 100, My First Gravel Race!

Land Run 100, My First Gravel Race!

To my friend Danielle, thank you so much!  Who knew the implications of our innocent conversation?  In 2014, with no previous experience, I got to ride nearly 2,500 miles on gravel roads in seven different states.  I made a host of new friends who share my new passion for the solitude and challenge of gravel riding and racing.  I fell in love with someone on a gravel bike (not the guy in the picture).  I fell out of love with that someone on a gravel bike.  But let’s come back to the most important part of all this… I rode A LOT on GRAVEL!!

Gravelicious Finish Line

Gravelicious Finish Line

Life on two wheels is a uniquely personal experience to all of us who love cycling.  For some, there is the rush of being part of a moving freight train in a highly synchronized pace line moving 25-30 miles per hour along an open road.  For others, it is the challenge of seeing what you can do on your own.  Can I climb that mountain road and tear it up on the sweet descent that awaits me on the other side?  Can I ride 100, 200, maybe even 500 miles all by myself in one event? (Yes, I know a woman who raced over 500 miles and WON!)  For many, cycling means a casual ride on a paved trail with friends, family, or a loved one.  So why gravel?  In a rather paradoxical way, gravel can be all or none of these things. Each gravel road has a personality that is as individual as the person who rides on it.  Some roads are well compacted and ride fast, others are graded like a washboard and literally shake your skull when you ride them, and still others are not even gravel.  Dirt roads are prominent features on several “gravel” courses I have ridden.

Gravel Worlds, Lincoln, NE

Gravel Worlds, Lincoln, NE

I came to the Midwest in 2010 so that I could discover what remains of the wide open spaces of America. I came with the heart of an explorer and the eyes of child. In my travels I prayed that I might find someone I had lost a long time ago. I came here to find “me”. There is no better way to search for any of these things than by pedaling a bicycle on a gravel road in summer in the middle of Oklahoma, Kansas, or Nebraska. The beauty of the Plains is not like the magnificence of a Colorado mountain, or the imposing red rocks in a southern Utah canyon, or the dense lushness of an Eastern forest. The allure of the Great Plains lies in the cumulative impact of small things. Prairie flowers, an improbable clear running stream in the middle of nowhere, a collection of any number of simple beautiful things scattered across a seemingly endless expanse of tall grass and rolling hills. You won’t see all these things in a car going 85 miles per hour along Interstate 70. You will find them on a gravel bike just outside of Emporia, or around Stillwater, or west of Sedan, or east of Winfield, or throughout Osage County (the place where that movie was made…:)

Tall Grass Prairie, Pawhuska, Okla.

Tall Grass Prairie, Pawhuska, Okla.

For me, gravel riding facilitates an almost spiritual connection with nature in a way nothing else comes remotely close to. My bike is more than just two wheels and chain; it is truly a time machine and for a few hours I am again that young kid cruising around on a dusty country road.

Change is a natural part of life and the gentle wind that blew me into Oklahoma will surely carry me onward in due time. But I am blessed that in such an unassuming place, on a warm summer day, I found just what I was looking for. Living in a moment, I found me.