I wanted to use the nickname for the Paris-Roubaix race for the title of this thread but I did not want to offend anyone or run afoul of the forum nannyware (if there is any) by using the word one famous, if fictional, Iowa resident spelled “H, E, double hockeysticks”. So I went with purgatory. Besides, this year’s gravel loop was a short term punishment, not an eternal one.
I like gravel riding. I’ve done all four of the gravel loops on RAGBRAI and I did last year’s twice to make that day a century since I had to drive the team vehicle on Karras loop day. I even entertained the notion of doing this year’s loop three times for the same reason. But that was before I met it!
Technically speaking I believe there was the odd gravel-like pebble embedded in this years loop surface here and there. There might have even been the occasional cluster of stones where the members were almost touching each other. But mostly this year’s loop was sand or, as I suspect, ground up loess. It started out reasonably tame even so. The unusual number of folks riding the first “sector” (to continue the P-R reference) backwards would have been my first clue as to what was to come, had I the presence of mind to consider what it meant. But I didn’t.
When I got to Moorhead I saw a familiar face under the RAGBRAI sun canopy. Familiar in the sense that I’ve seen this face in photos and videos countless times. But I had never actually seen TJ in the flesh before. So I walked up to him started to razz him about the “gravel” loop this year. He was having none of that and in fact he warned me that the worst was yet to come: the hills. I wasn’t too worried because I had done gravel loop hills before and I thought he was just exaggerating. So I left it at that and thanked him for all of his hard work and his team’s hard work to make RAGBRAI happen every year. He in turn thanked me for my service. I’m not military or a first responder or anything like that but I was serving as a Ride Right Ambassador that day and was wearing the jersey.
Something to eat, plenty to drink, and back to the gravel. At this point my memory gets fuzzy. The sandy, rutted road surface continued to sap your strength on even the flat sections. But the second “sector” was indeed quite hilly. If the first sector could be likened to a category 1 or 2 climb due to the effort required to power through it, the second sector was HC! The weather this year was quite pleasant compared to what late July temperatures can be. Even so I believe Sunday was the hottest day of the ride this year and the heat started to kick in just about the time I headed into sector 2. I vividly remember two climbs not far out of town that took nearly everything I had to conquer. After that the details become a blur. I continued to climb the occasional easier hills but I know I had to walk five, was it, or ten, perhaps, or even more of the remaining hills after losing steam halfway up.
Riding this year’s loop put you between a rock and a hard place and another hard place on the downhills. I mean you just wanted to let the bike run and even pedal like mad on the downhills so that you could convert some of that hard earned gravitational potential energy into kinetic energy that would get you partway up the next hill as you normally do out on the paved roads. But even just letting the bike run had you on the edge of crashing because steering through that surface was difficult and the ruts left by all the previous sinners had your front wheel constantly hunting from side to side. You kinda had to let the bike find its own way, as nerve-wracking as that was. The other option, riding the brakes to keep your speed in check, seemed dangerous too. You were afraid to ride the brakes too hard lest your front or rear wheels or both slip out from under you on the loose surface. I honestly was never as happy to see the end of the gravel loop as I was this year. In previous years I was all “please sir, may I have some more?”. This year I just collapsed in a heap on the blessed asphalt and groaned “no mas, no mas!”
Did I mention that I was riding on 38mm tires? Mercy me, there were much younger and fitter riders rolling by me on 23’s. But not many….
The ordeal was not quite over when I got to the pavement again. By now I was bonked. Not as hard a bonk as I have ever been but if I had seen any sign of the SAG wagon I would have blocked the road and waived that sucker down! Instead I limped into Soldier resolved to get some refreshment and wait for the SAG team to show up. I got some water, a large Beekmans, and sat in a shaded seating area to listen to “Circle of Fifths'” last few numbers. When they started to break down their gear I got up and felt meh. But that was actually a vast improvement. So I convinced myself I could get back in the saddle and make Ute. I was running on fumes again when I rolled in but more food, more drink, more rest and as I was leaving town I was feeling more better. I felt almost normal by Charter Oak and I felt fine at Denison. Eventually your digestion system processes enough food to make you functional again. None of this prevented me from staging a photo of me laying on the ground with my tongue hanging out to one side for Facebook of course!
Those of you who found the previous gravel loops too little of a challenge were presumably at least a little more satisfied by this year’s version. It clearly defeated me. Next year I am coming loaded for bear however: a new bike with 2.5 inch tires!! Maybe I’ll even be able to keep up with the young guys and gals on 23’s….