By PAUL KRUMRICH
“Don’t be an idiot, and don’t litter!” These words were coming from Chris Skogen, the organizer of the Almanzo 100, an unsupported 100-mile cycling race held each spring on the gravel roads of southeastern Minnesota. It was May 14th, though the skies looked more like November. A pack of about 400 riders lined up, huddling together and eyeing the gathering gloom. The roads ahead — 100 miles of twisting, climbing, backcountry lanes — were wet and muddy, “slimy” some people would later say.
Similar to the mantra in the book “Fight Club,” the first three rules for the Almanzo 100 race are: You are on your own; You are on your own; You are on your own! Dramatic, I know. But the foreshadowing was not lost on me as my friend Keith Bianchi and I picked up our race packets that morning in a chilling rain. Keith had told me about this race, an underground and free event, on a cold, rainy bike ride home from work just three weeks prior. Now, here I was lined up with a peloton of people, many who’d trained and prepared for the Almanzo’s challenge for months.
I had done as much research as I could on this crazy race. My cyclocross bike — geared at 42/53 front and 12/26 back, rolling on file-tread Vittoria tubulars, and fitted with double-tail bottle cages — was a worthy steed for the course. But as the race picked up, I was thinking that the pace was unsustainable for me with nearly 100 hard miles still ahead.
The early miles rolled by. Ten miles in on the slimy, rut-filled roads, and I was already blind and numb from the rain and flying mud. Then we hit the first significant climb — the pace and the grade shattered the field, and of the 400+ riders who started the course, fourteen racers broke free and were away. I held on for dear life.
Freezing rain flew in on high winds, adding unneeded weight to my shoe covers and bibs. I followed wheels whenever possible to conserve energy, literally eating the spray from the rider in front of me. Those who know the frustration of a head wind can appreciate how eating gravel was the better of the two options.
At mile 25, I crashed on loose gravel trying to change position in the field. My cue sheets tore from my bike, my front derailleur broke, and some skin was donated to the road. I got back on and chased the group down for two miles. As the adrenalin wore off, I fell back into the spray line.
For the most part, the Almanzo stays in the true countryside for its serpentine course. But our one and only brush with civilization was at mile 38 in the town of Preston, Minn., where Keith and I stopped at our “stash tree” to refill our water bottles and grab sandwiches. We each ate the best Snickers bars we’d ever consumed. We ditched our rain jackets at the last minute, unwittingly breaking one of the organizer’s aforementioned rules, “Don’t be an idiot.”
As the race rolled on, we soon realized how vital those jackets were. The cold now penetrated our jerseys, and the chase group broke apart as the miles, and the course’s 6,800 vertical feet of climbing, took its toll.
I tried to eat and drink as many non-gravel-based substances as my frozen club hands would let me. At mile 80, we were brought through a knee-deep river crossing where I got to wash my glasses and add some more water weight to my lower extremities. The river also brought a steep extended climb out of its valley, where Keith and I caught two riders from the lead group.
The riders gave us a nod as we passed, their faces told a tale of “too hard for too long.” As we rode on, I began suffering a similar fate — my mud-encrusted Garmin computer was showing a heart rate 20 beats lower than normal for me at that effort. My body was going screwy. My secret natural energy goo mixture (yams, peanut butter, salt, and honey) had taken me this far, but the last 20 miles was going to be a knife fight.
At mile 90, we took a right turn and faced a wall of gravel that someone was trying to pass off as a road. I could not muster the power to keep my bike moving forward, and I had to unclip and push up the wall. I walked and pushed with my head down in the rain.
But the end was in sight! One of the two paved miles on the course was the final mile, and the effort that would achieve 16mph or less on the gravel was now a smooth 22mph as we rolled into the finish area. Keith crossed just in front of me in what we found out later was 6th place. I stopped my Garmin at just under 6.5 hours, took a handful of cookies, some warm coffee, and then another handful of cookies from the friendly volunteers.
I read somewhere that you should go try something crazy hard every once in a while, just to see where you stand. The Almanzo is the mirror that shows you who you are, not who you tell people you are. This year’s event was tough, frozen, muddy and rain-drenched. But at the end, a cookie in my mouth and coffee steaming, I looked around and knew next year I’d be back.
—Paul Krumrich is a contributing writer for GearJunkie. He previously wrote on his experience training for and racing in the Ford Ironman Arizona. For information on the Almanzo 100 race, see the organization’s blog, Almanzo100.blogspot.com.