Running With The Big Dogs

The ride invitation from a local bike club was too much to resist:

Awesome Gravel Road Ride — some pavement, lots of gravel, really great scenery, one abandoned road and a few hills. The route is about 40 miles, I expect to ride it at a moderate to easy pace in about 3 hours.

I heard the siren call, passed the invitation on to 9Toes, and he heard it, too, so off we went to Lawrence to meet up with some folks we didn’t know, to ride some roads we’d never ridden.

As we pulled onto the street and neared the house where bikes were being unloaded and guys in spandex stood around getting ready, 9Toes said, “They’re all riding cyclocross bikes — we’re screwed.”

And indeed, the two of us were the only ones riding mountain bikes, with the other five riders boasts some pretty fancy ‘cross rigs. I, in particular, was rather out of place, with my generic-looking bike, low-end components, sleeveless t-shirt, and SPD sandals. 9Toes, at least, had a high-end bike with a race-worthy setup and gear.

Regardless, after some introductions and handing out of maps, we were off, winding our way across Clinton Parkway and south on Kasold Drive. Right off the bat, the pace was pretty strong.

After a few miles, the ride leader fell back and rode with me for a bit. “You ride road bikes much?” he asked. “No,” I said, “Actually, I come from the complete opposite direction — recumbent-land.”

I don’t think he knew what to say to that, but he asked me if I knew how to ride and draft in groups. “Sort of,” I said.

“Well, I hope you’re a quick study. Knowing these guys,” he said, nodding toward the riders up front, “they’ll keep the pace pretty high.”

Turns out, the guys we were riding with were indeed fast riders, and big names in the local racing scene. The biggest was Dan Hughes, owner of the Sunflower Bike Shop and a perennial top finisher in the Dirty Kanza (the 200-mile ultra-distance gravel race in the Flint Hills). Curtis Martell, the ride organizer, was director of the Free State Racing team. I didn’t catch the other three guy’s names, but I was given to understand that they were all racers, and it was pretty obvious they were fast.

After a few miles of pavement, we final hit gravel, and then the first of the day’s hills, a short but steep climb on N 1075th. Shortly thereafter Dan pulled over to fix a flat, which was a good opportunity to catch our breath. I then discovered that my cyclocomputer hadn’t been working right. I tweaked it a bit and all seemed well, but now my stats were messed up.

After the flat was repaired, the group was off again, through a couple gravel-then-paved sections before finally hitting gravel for a long winding uphill. I was in the middle of the pack by the next regroup point at about mile 14, but poor 9Toes was bringing up the rear. He’d said he was having some stomach problems earlier in the ride, and that plus too few recent miles, were having an effect, apparently.

After a short break, the group took off together around the southern tip of Lone Star Lake, and then the promised abandoned road before hitting pavement again on the west side of the lake. 9Toes and I, on our mountain bikes, fell behind pretty far on the pavement around the lake and across the dam. Finally we found the rest of the crew resting at the SAG stop kindly provided by Curtis’s wife, Julie.

This was about the halfway point on the ride, and the trip back started off with a slog into the wind for several miles, then a really fast, tailwind-aided downhill, followed by a nasty little hill, the kind that starts off looking easy, but disappears around a bend, and just seems to keep getting steeper and longer. For me, this was the worst hill of the day, and I lost some ground to the ‘cross riders.

After another regroup stop, we again headed into the wind for a ways before finally heading north again for good. This part of the ride was rather scenic, with some nice views and a couple good downhill runs.

About mile 32 we hit the last real climb of the day, another long and curvy hill. But this one was paved, so I found it considerably easier (either that or I’d regained some energy in the preceding tailwind miles).

After that it was just a few short miles of gravel before we were back on the paved roads leading into Lawrence.

Curtis reported it as 39.7 miles in a little over 2-and-a-half hours ride time, for about a 15.5 MPH average. With that pace and the number of hills on the route, I was pretty beat by the end, but I was happy enough with my ride — in the middle of the pack more often than not, and only losing touch with the main group once or twice. Whether that was from their taking it easy on us poor MTB riders, or me spinning well, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it.

Not sure when I’ll ride with these guys again, but it’s sure good training, and I expect the next time a gravel ride is proposed, I’ll start to feel the pull again…

DirtBum Written by:

I enjoy riding bicycles all over -- city streets, suburbia, rural roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, rail-trails, and singletrack. I love exploring the countryside and finding the interesting and historical treasures hidden in plain sight. You can follow my rides on Strava.