'I rode my bike 208 miles on gravel roads in Iowa last weekend...'

By AMY OBERBROECKLING

At 4a.m. last Saturday, I set off to ride my bike 320 miles on gravel roads. The venue was the Trans Iowa race, and after a week of worrying all the jitters vanished as soon as I felt the rumble of the gravel under my wheels.

Almost 100 cyclists had signed up for the challenge. The race, now in its ninth year, is one of the hardest of gravel road races, which are now popping up by the dozens. (See our coverage of the trend, “Hilly, Mud-splattered, Leg-Crushing… Gravel Road Racing gettin’ huge.”)

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320 miles across Iowa begins. Photo via ImagineGnat

I’ve raced in the Almanzo, a Minnesota gravel ride, and I’ve ridden centuries on roads a few times. But the Trans Iowa — at 320 miles long! — would pose a serious challenge.

Racers get 36 hours to complete the course. You carry all your own gear, no drop-offs allowed. However, the gas stations and shops of rural Iowa are fair game, and most all riders stop at a few along the way to get water and food.

I rode in a pack as the race rolled through the first 20 miles. We weaved along rural roads. The sun started peaking up over the horizon, and before I knew it we rolled into the first checkpoint at 8:30, feeling good.

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Minimum maintenance roads were common on the route

Gravel on the roads ranges in Iowa from hard-pack (cruising!) to loose and “fresh” (slow!). My bike, a cyclocross build, was fast but not the most comfortable choice. Add to this a backpack and a frame bag on the bike and I was ferrying a pretty serious load on down the Iowan road.

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Racers take a snack break at one of the few gas stations along the route. Photo via ImagineGnat

The day went by fast. The miles ticked away. I alternated sips of Endurance Fuel mix from Tailwind Nutrition as well as water for hydration. For food, I relied on Clif Shot gels and other energy food as well as Salted Nut Rolls and a Snickers bar I picked up from a gas station in the town of State Center, Iowa.

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Miles and miles of fields was a common view; photo via ImagineGnat

Mile 100 came and went. When the sun began setting — around the 150-mile mark now — it became hard to find a good line in the gravel to follow. Indeed, riding in the right spot on the road is key: Stay in the “hardest” part of the gravel (often the packed car tire areas) and you’re fine; drift into the looser stuff and the pace slows to a crawl.

I cranked and squinted ahead. I drank and ate on schedule, my stamina felt fine. But one thing was not fine… around this time I noticed a sharp pain in my shoulder. A crash a few years ago had broken my clavicle, and I still occasionally feel the effect. I rolled into a checkpoint at mile 172 feeling a bit beat.

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